Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.

William King’s Gotrek Gurnisson, my own drawing from 2000

While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.

So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.

Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?

Late-19th century image of a Pict

Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.

MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.

Robert E Howard’s Bran Mak Morn with his people. Illustration by Gary Gianni

These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.

Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.

early illustration of the ‘Man of Chapelle-aux-Saints’ Neanderthal

Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.

Grendel’s father, hunted by the Norsemen. From Beowulf & Grendel, 2005

In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’

Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man by the Kennis brothers

They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.

Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!

The Soul Cages

We’ve recently been rewatching Babylon 5, and came across the feature-length episode with the Soul Hunters. Soul Hunters, in J. Michael Straczynski’s universe, well-meaningly capture the souls of the dying for posterity – and in so doing, drive those souls mad. Something about that story was familiar, but tracing its path would take us from the vastness of the universe to the bottom of the sea. And in every form the story takes, one question nags: what do we owe the people around us?

“There is an old British folktale about the souls of the dead being kept under the sea in the lobster cages of a creature who is half man, half fish. Anyone who dares try to free the souls of the dead must go under the sea himself and drink with the creature. If he drinks him under the table, the souls will go free. If, on the other hand, the creature prevails, the challenger will be imprisoned forever in the cages at the bottom of the sea. You need a strong stomach to treat with this creature.” – Sting, Lyrics by Sting (2007)

On this day in 1991, Sting released The Soul Cages – a meditation on bereavement, family and birthplace, with salt in its veins and religion and folklore in its imagery. The album was a personal exorcism that followed three years of writer’s block, and a response to the death of his father. It’s scaffolded on the waning of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry, and the image of a ship recurs, representing both the hope of going out into the world to adventure, and a sealed coffin. The fourth single, the title song, directly references a folk tale that Sting was familiar with.

The boy child is locked in the fisherman’s yard
There’s a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of night stars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie

I’ve loved this album since I was eighteen. It gave me an imaginative route to dealing with my feelings about own late father and my waning faith. Also, the gloom of a declining shipyard is familiar to anyone who grew up around Belfast Lough, with the great cranes of Harland and Wolff as part of our mental landscape. In his 2013 musical The Last Ship, Sting would return to that theme with a focus on the impact on a community of its shipyard closing, but The Soul Cages is mostly about the intuitive, inner response to loss, and that last single dramatises it as a conflict with evil beneath the sea.

He’s the king of the ninth world
The twisted son of the fog bells’ toll
In each and every lobster cage, a tortured human soul

In the song, a boy seeks to reclaim his father’s soul from the sea bed, where men’s souls are the captives of “the Fisherman,” a fiend who functions more like the Devil than an old sea dog. The boy offers the Fisherman a wager, bringing him a cask of magical wine, which he says is wrung from the blood of those sailors. He challenges the Fisherman – in effect challenging the sea itself – to match him drink for drink: “If the drink leaves me standing, a soul shall go free.” But if the Fisherman is the last one standing, the boy will be caged with him forever.

A body lies open in the fisherman’s yard like
The side of a ship where the iceberg rips
One less soul in the soul cages
One last curse on the fisherman’s lips

The boy prevails and the monster is defeated, yet the prize seems so slight: one less soul in the soul cages? Why not bargain for all the dead? Why not open the rest of the cages and let the souls go? Of course, the reasons are making the lyrics fit and the rhyme scheme, and thematically the story is really about just one soul, one dead father. The last verse repeats the bridge and coda of album opener “Island of Souls”, which is the inverse of “The Soul Cages.” In its modern industrial landscape, the boy’s father is simply injured working at the shipyard. The imagery is prosaic compared to that of “The Soul Cages”:

They brought Billy’s father back home in an ambulance
Brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live

Billy dreads his life inevitably taking the same tack: miserable job, wages drunk away rather than saved, health destroyed. But in the chorus, he dreams of the ship going out into the world, of himself and his father leaving the town behind forever, to sail to the Island of Souls. Sting would also knit that idea into The Last Ship decades later. But while “The Soul Cages” is more heavily folkloric than Sting’s later project, the bridge hints at modern life in a north that, at the time he was writing it, had long been hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government:

These are the souls of the broken factories
Subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town

So, “The Soul Cages” and “Island of Souls” are the same story told from realistic and fantastical perspectives. Only in his dreams can Billy win his father’s soul back and save himself from a grim life. In reality, Sting left the city, and he finally transcended his own grief by writing about it, even though the north would eventually pull him back to write about its people and its industry in more direct terms.

I had wondered for years about the folk tale “The Soul Cages” was based on, and finally researched it when Remco and I were writing our own story about the sea and the dead. The northern Dutch history that inspires us is also riven with maritime tragedies, and we’d woven together the fishing disaster of Moddergat with the local belief in divination. Inevitably, I listened to The Soul Cages a lot while working on it, and decided it was finally time to trace the song’s folkloric roots. What emerged was a strange history, with unexpected layers.

“The Soul Cages” was first published in volume 2 of T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825 – 28). In Croker’s collection, “The Soul Cages” is the story of Jack Dogherty, a fisherman and beachcomber living on the coast of Co. Clare on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Jack had always wished to see a Merrow – a creature that (as in Sting’s memory of the story) is somewhat like a man, and somewhat like a fish:

“One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.”

The Merrow, whose name is Coomara, turns out to be a very friendly sort of fellow, and because this is Ireland and someone always knows one of your relations, Jack learns that the Merrow and his grandfather were old friends. Coomara invites Jack to his home under the sea for a slap-up meal, lending him a hat which lets him breathe underwater. Jack is perturbed about entering the briny depths, but finds Coomara’s home perfectly civilised, if a little rustic. Overall, the feeling of the story up to this point is that a Merrow is just another kind of person – odd-looking, but somehow still ‘one of us’.

After a long, elaborate dinner and an impressive amount of alcohol (they’re both in the habit of rescuing bottles from shipwrecks, and the cool under the sea prevents it going to their heads), the Merrow shows Jack around, inviting him to admire his various treasures, and that’s when a cultural gap emerges. Coomara has a collection of lobster pots which he proudly introduces as the Soul Cages:

“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered Jack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”

Jack is “thunderstruck” (though not enough to spurn his host’s excellent brandy), and after Coomara sends him home, he devises a plan to release the sailors’ souls. Sending his unknowing wife off on a trip to a holy well for the sake of their own souls, he invites Coomara to dinner and attempts to get him drunk. Adding tension to the story, his first try leaves the Merrow perfectly clear-headed, but luckily Jack’s wife’s journey is a multi-day affair, and Coomara doesn’t question two dinner invitations so close together.

Jack’s secret weapon is poitín – an illicit and very strong drink distilled from potatoes. Apparently his grandfather never introduced the Merrow to that one! While Coomara is insensible, Jack borrows his hat and makes his way back to the Merrow’s home on the seabed. To Jack, the souls are invisible, so as he lifts one lobster pot after another to release them, he has to content himself with “a sort of little whistle or chirp” as each soul leaves its cage. There’s a brief worry over whether he’ll be able to return to the surface without Coomara’s tail to hold onto, which is how he managed it before, but a big fish comes by and all is solved.

Here the story veers into broad comedy. Jack’s wife returns to find the Merrow passed out on her kitchen floor, and assumes her husband has “made a beast of himself with drink” until she runs into Jack outside. Her anger abates when she hears of his saving of the souls, and, rather anticlimactically, we are told that Coomara “never missed” them. Jack’s acquaintance with the Merrow continues for several years, and as Coomara continues collecting souls, every so often Jack repeats the whole procedure, until Coomara is seen no more, and Jack assumes he has died or left that part of the country. So that’s it: this creature, who has behaved monstrously without ever thinking of it that way, is a good pal until he dies or moves house.

Croker collected the stories he anthologised from a number of contacts in Ireland. He also larded them with a literary style, humour and stereotypes, which may be unfortunate given that the collection was to increase the profile of Irish folklore in the wider world. Most significantly, Croker had lost his original manuscript, and the published version is what he could reconstruct with the help of other writers, including Thomas Keightley, a pioneer in the study of folklore. However, when the second volume was published, containing “The Soul Cages”, it bore only Croker’s name. This brought criticism, as on folklore blog Writing in Margins, which calls it a ‘Fake Folktale‘.

Keightley republished “Soul Cages” in The Fairy Mythology (1828), and in a later edition would admit that it was not a piece of folklore collected in the field, but a story of his own devising, based on the German tale “Der Wassermann und der Bauer” (“The Waterman and the Peasant“), no. 52 in the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm. The story’s provenance has been viewed as Keightley hoaxing the other folklorists, but in an 1829 letter to Wilhelm Grimm, Keightley claimed that it had been Croker’s idea to cobble the story together, and that Croker made changes after it left Keightley’s hands.

Keightly’s confession is further complicated by his claim to have afterwards found sources in Ireland, in Cork and Wicklow, who knew the story as Keightley himself had written it, except that the souls were in upturned flowerpots, rather than lobster pots. It’s also possible that in the intervening years, book distribution and people’s memories of the story being read to them in childhood, by way of Grimm even, could have reintroduced it to the oral tradition.

And what of its cultural afterlife? The literary critic Richard Pine has argued that it’s the basis for Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which involves a fisherman, a mermaid, and a detached and wandering soul, though to my mind the resemblance is slight when looking at the story as a whole. Going back to Newcastle, by 1851, the North East of England had the fourth largest Irish population in England and Wales combined, so if the story was being told by Irish people, it might eventually have found its way to Sting through their descendants. Given the Deutsche Sagen route of dissemination, a version of “The Soul Cages” must appear in any number of books.

Whatever the truth of its origins, reading it now, we might ask: what’s the moral of this story? Should we keep inviting our own Watermen and Merrows to our tables, and simply accept that it’s our responsibility, every now and then, to go and release the souls that they just keep on capturing? Or should we tell the Watermen to stop their activities once and for all, and leave other souls at peace?


New Year’s Misrule

One of my early New Year’s memories is visiting my grandfather and seeing, on the roof of a municipal building, a complete farmer’s wagon. In an 1985 newspaper article someone remembers about such an occurrence, decades earlier: My father, who came from the Hogeland (northern Groningen) told us in all colours about it. They would take a wagon completely apart, take the axels out, take the sideboards off, and then it was put together again on top of a farmer’s barn. My father also told that they sometimes loaded the wagon full of manure. (…) Once we were dragging an enormous barrel of fish offal. It stank awfully. We just had it standing on a bridge when the police came for control. The barrel was left standing there, of course, and we were covered with gunk. (…) Sometimes farmers would chase us. They were already waiting for us, and then they had their fun. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

Dragging in Emmen, north-east Netherlands, 1959

New Year’s pranks like this happened in our village too. Ulrum is a small village, yet it had four churches. That it was the seat of the 1834 Seccession may have to do something with that. Members of some of these churches were not really on speaking terms; “we are not Brothers,” as the Freed Christian Reformed Article 31 members had it. Yet, one Old Year’s Day, after their Old Year service, they had to interact with each other when all bicycles of churchgoers were swapped between churches. My brother adds: “I did it a lot in my youth, starting already during the evening, continuing through out the night. Our main goal was to block church doors and entrance roads to the village. But we also did other pranks such as placing mannequin dolls on top of roofs, changing the name signs of villages in the neighbourhood etc.” From the 1985 Nieuwsblad van het Noorden article: “The young people were getting giddy in anticipation of the dragging. We were thinking of stunts everyone would be talking of the next day.” He still has good memories of the time when he and his friends during the Old Year service swapped all the coats from churchgoers of the two churches. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

The Old Year church service fell victim to pranks a few more times: once when one youth brought in a box of eggs and, from a perch near the back, released the eggs, one at the time. The church floor sloped towards the choir, so each egg would quickly gain speed, rattle underneath the benches and, if it didn’t come to a stop at someone’s feet, come to a yolky end at the front. Another time, someone removed the spark plugs from the electric church organ, bringing a hymn from a full ‘all registers’ to a premature and whimpering anti-climax.

For many years, an old car, a clunker, would be secured ahead of New Year’s Eve, and then after midnight rolled to the village square by local youths and set alight. The fire brigade would be prepared, but wait a while before extinguishing it, meanwhile standing around the fire themselves with a pot of beer. The local Spar owner, poor Mr. Scheper, would also be prepared and have his insurance papers ready, as many years his shop windows would burst through the heat.

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be reminded of that novel’s own clunker (here spelled ‘klunker’), a decrepit car which stands on a frozen lake in Laketown, Wisconsin. The place is protected by Hinzelman, a kobold who does so in exchange for the midwinter sacrifice of a child. Every year, residents hold a raffle in which they predict the date when the klunker will finally crash through the ice, signalling the end of winter. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I would guess that dragging the klunker onto the ice is also a communal, almost ritual, effort. What all these traditions in common have is some kind of shared effort, or a spectacle involving the public destruction of a focal object, to mark the turning of a season.

American Gods‘ Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) with Hinzelmann’s klunker.

Sanne Meijer, a blogger from Groningen, writes:
In some villages the youth goes out on New Year’s night to “drag”: moving objects which have been left lying around outside the house. In the past, farmers’ carts were placed on roofs; now it’s usually smaller objects being moved. Sometimes to a central location, but it can also happen that people really have to search the next day, to get their flowerpots and garden furniture back.
“Dragging” is often part of an “Old Year’s Stunt” which was used to put a village or club in the spotlight. In the last weeks of the year a particular object of note disappears from the village, which then is placed back at the turn of the year. On the 31st of December 2013 the signs for “Most fun village of the province Groningen” were removed from Niekerk, and then appeared the next day in the village of Kornhorn.
One of the best known stunts was the appearance of Lenin in the Frisian village Oosterwolde. On New Year’s day 1998 a giant statue of Lenin had appeared in the village. It turned out to have come from Tjuchem in Groningen; the owner had imported it from the erstwhile USSR.

Lenin, 9 metres tall, in Friesland.

To prevent their stuff being dragged, people used to make sure that they’d put everything that could be moved in the shed. I remember that my dad would make sure that our red-and-white painted trash can (easy to recognise when there are twenty bins at the roadside for collection) was safely locked up. Still, looking on the Internet you see reports of place-name signs being swapped, ‘for sale’ signs being moved, orchestrating a garden gnome football match, and what else the youth can invent. There’s a fine line between “slepen” (dragging) and “slopen” (wrecking); swapping people’s garden furniture to have neighbours puzzled or mildly inconvenienced is one thing; dragging their stuff away to set alight is another. You can see both, and the sheer scale of dragging, in this 1978 footage taken in the northern villages of Ulrum, Leens, Wehe, Eenrum and Zoutkamp. In front of Ulrum’s town hall stands a manure wagon, a shopholder is rebuked for having rip-off prices per grafitti, a lot of farm equipment blocking the roads… Do watch it!

As with many unwritten rules, this is not always clear, and slepen can easily turn into slopen. A Nieuwsblad van het Noorden commentator already rings alarm bells (or death knell) of the dragging custom:
Another tradition is moribund; the tradition of (in the countryside) the dragging of goods from one place to another. At first glance nothing to lose sleep over, except maybe for those who experience the loss of any tradition as painful and the curse of the modern age. But there’s more. The traditional dragging has been replaced by violence and vandalism. According to the Groninger police force New Year came with chaos, fires and vandalism. It was the same in the other northern provinces. A sad development. Dragging wasn’t always fun for the victims, but it was never more than teasing neighbours or fellow villagers. Whomever had lost something in New Year’s Night, usually knew where to search the next day. Now the dragging has turned into vandalism, searching is no use, as the belongings will have been destroyed. This is bad business. When people are out to cause damage and misery, then it’s about time for the powers that be to sit around the table to talk about these developments. Whether it’ll help can be doubted, but the chance that these conversations leak through to the perpetrators and calms them down can not be left unused. (Nv/hN, 02 Jan 1978)

When slepen becomes slopen – bonfire on the Zuiderdiep in the city of Groningen, New Year’s Eve, 1966

Then again, already in 1962 there were those who’d rather see it go altogether:
A custom can be old and good, and should be kept, but a custom is not good because it’s old. It’s a custom for some to drag the goods from others in New Year’s Night, because they find it funny, or because it happens each year, or because their parents used to do it, or to tease, or another reason. However, this custom may be old, it is not good, and should be banned. Let’s start the new year well. A good start is half the job done. Sincerely, G.W.M. ZIJLSTRA, Grootegast. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1962)

There are more subtle societal sides to dragging which are easily overlooked:
People would leave stuff outside on purpose. When you thought that you’d secretly dragged something away, they were thinking from behind the curtain: Finally rid of that old wheel-barrel.” However, it could also be corrective: Sloppy farmers had to search and haul back a lot, while the youth was watching and sniggering. People who had placed themselves too much outside of society would find their door barricaded with dragged stuff: “We were dragging those empty oildrums to a peculiar shopkeepers couple. As children we were afraid to pass them; you were not even allowed to stand in front of the shop window, because he’d come outside with a stick and if he got the chance he’d beat you. Someone like that would be put to rights.”

New Year’s pranks are a tradition of the northern Dutch provinces, and the domain of teenagers, the older youth. New Year’s mischief is an example of the upsetting of the normal order, and the short reign of the Lord of Misrule. Think of the passages in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame set during the Feast of Fools (set in the book on 6 January), in which Quasimodo is made the False Pope; while the historical Feast of Fools was an ecclesiastical ritual in which upper and lower clergy would trade places, Hugo’s story widens it up to larger and wilder social context, more akin to the (unrelated) Roman Saturnalia. Rituals of inversion have obvious appeal in situations where there is a rigid hierarchy – such as a military chain of command. The British Army have a tradition, begun in 1890, of officers serving their soldiers in bed on Christmas Day. The drink? ‘Gunfire’, which is black tea laced with rum. Even deployed troops have their small taste of Christmas misrule, as often their Christmas dinner is served by officers. In Groningen too it was tradition that farmers would treat their staff on a good meal at Midwinter; something to come back to another day.

Quasimodo as Pope of Fools, 1844 illustration from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Saturnalia was celebrated on the 17th December, later extended until the 25th. It included gift-giving, gambling and, indeed, role reversal: in particular slaves were given licence to disrespect their masters, and they were treated to a luscious banquet. It was a time for free speech, called “December liberty” by the poet Horace. This levelling of social hierarchy was temporary and had its limits; social norms were not threatened, as the holiday would end. In our contemporary society, it would be the youngsters, living under the thumb of their parents and teachers, and in general having low societal influence, how are allowed for one night to be out all night and engage in mischief, as long as after New Year they’re back to good behaviour.

But how then to match a Roman and a Catholic tradition to something what seems to be more pagan, playing out over the Eastern provinces which fall in the Nether-Saxon language area? Lazily, I wander to the wiki article about the Germanic Yule feast. A description of the pagan Yule has sacrifices left, right and centre, and drinking and toasting. Drinking and toasting isn’t unknown to New Year’s revellers, of course, but the sacrifices are harder to place in the current context (there are other Midwinter traditions that fit, like gift giving and even the carrot for St Nicolas’ horse). With a bit of imagination we can see dragging a clunker through the village for the bonfire as a faint echo of the dragging of the yule log, the communal effort to bring the object to be burnt, the thing that sparks the new year.

The 7th C saint Eligius, who worked for 20 years to convert the pagan population of Flanders to Christianity was said to have been firm about what his listeners had to renounce: the godless and nonsensical merriment on the 1st of January, making sculptures of people and harts, holding big meals, sending round of New Year’s gifts and well-wishing toasts. A century later, Boniface still wrote in anger to the pope about the heathen noise at New Year. There are strange customs we’ve lost: our Germanic forefathers may sit on the roof with a sword with magic runes, and from which way the wind blew they’d know what the new year would bring. Others may sit on a bull’s skin on a crossroads, where they’d fall asleep. Fairies who were trekking round on New Year’s night, as it was their migration night, would predict the future in passing. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

These bands of fairies are not unlike the Wild Hunt, and with the Wild Hunt, with supernatural activity and undead beings walking the Earth, we’re getting closer to roaming youth causing mayhem. Are these youngsters a reenactment of the Wild Hunt? I am also reminded that all of this happens at the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new; a sort of organised chaos is allowed to happen in this liminal period in which people ask each other, “What day is it again?” It’s almost as if it’s a mini-Ragnarok, a “mini-end-times’, a reenactment of when Loki, the Nordic and Germanic trickster and Lord of Mischief, turns against his fellow gods, and battles at the side of the giants, in a cataclysmic war, after which the world will resurface ‘anew and fertile’. Are our youth allowed, for one night only, to be Loki turning against their fellow people?

And what will you be up to on New Year’s Eve?


The Call of Midwinter

You’ll hear it from miles away, the Midwinter Horn. It’s a large, bent, wooden horn, played from Advent till Epiphany in the Groninger area of Westerwolde, huddled against the German border, with its Eighty Year War fortification of Bourtange. It’s a mournful sound, and you’d think it’s lowed over the heather for centuries, since Saxon times. While the area indeed has Saxon roots, the tradition has no known history in Groningen; only in 2005 did it blow over from the southward provinces of Drenthe and Twente. It is very popular there too – there are several Midwinter horn groups, courses in making a horn, and classes and exams. It’s great to see so much interest in this very old custom, especially since at certain point it was moribund.

It’s interesting to see how it’s been written about in the regional newspaper, the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden. In 1926, in the folklore column, we read:
A previous year I was in a noisy Belgian environment of popping Champagne corks, amidst a celebrating audience in paper hats and half-dressed in ‘evening dress’, witnessing such a ‘reveillon de grand-gala’, and celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst a wild bunch, culminating in the cacophony of a raging jazz band. But in the land of Twente the old year still dies under the mysterious notes of the lamenting Midwinter horn and the blessed clock ringing of so many towers in Twente. (Nv/hN, 6 March 1926)

1933 shows us a photograph of a farmer and his wife (but note that the woman’s horn is made of welded metal instead of metal-banded wood):
An old custom, of which the origin and meaning are lost in the darkness of centuries, the blowing of the home-made Midwinter horn. This custom still exists in Twente, and especially in Ootmarsum. Preferably, the Midwinter horn is blown over a well, which will amplify the note so much that the heavy sound can be heard hours further. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1933)

And from the 1935 Christmas picture spread (see the smoked meat hanging from the rafters!):
The Midwinter horn is taken from the wall in the “Los Hoes” in Ootmarsum. The blowing of the Midwinter horn still happens in Twente in the dark days before Christmas. (Nv/hN, 21 Dec 1935)

This from the 1953 New Year’s Eve picture spread. Standards appear to have slipped – no solemn and mournful tooting over a well; it’s a band of youngsters now, with easier to make metal horns:
Through the somber wood the sound of the Midwinter horns sounds. In Twente this old custom is still kept in honour in the dark days between Christmas and New Year. (Nv/hN, 29 Dec 1953)

The columnist, poet & satirist Kees Stip writes the following in 1970. It does show resistance to the reawakening interest in folk tradition, which at that time was seen as the domain of ‘hippies and dropouts’ and nostalgists, while for another part of the older generation (Stip was born in 1913) it was just old junk, to be consigned to the scrap heap. It’s also significant that Stip assigns the custom a distinct ‘Germanic’ identity, while the War was still fresh in memory. He writes, snidely:
* Who still has a shred of Germanism in his soul, can have his soul blown through in Twente. Over the whole area the sound of the Midwinter horn will sound again. I think it’s pretty, but pretty nauseating, just like Wagner. The soundscape reminds me of the rutting cries of an old elk which has fallen in the well, tries to climb up and falls down again. In reality it’s only water in the well, with a farmer blowing above it.
* Farmer or elk, blowing the Midwinter horn is an art requiring a lot of skill. Only the most skilful it is given to add to the basic notes not only the terts and the kwint but also the sekst. For farmers this may not mean much, but for elks it probably is one of the most stimulating forms of sexual entertainment.
* Our heathen forefathers blew the Midwinter horns to chase away evil spirits. Nobody knows whether this is true, but as an extinct heathen you’re depend on the Christians to interpret your deeds. The Christians themselves interpret their still uncured Midwinter blowing ailment as the heralding of the glad tidings. You’d get that news tooted through the phone like that. For me, Midwinter horns mean that it can’t be summer soon enough. (Nv/hN, 22 Dec 1970)

An article from fifteen years later is more enthusiastic. It paints the picture: “Outside it’s foggy and already dark since four-thirty. Suddenly, as if from a different world, come the somber, mournful and mystical sounds you’ll never have heard and will never forget.” It seems to me that the writer has been rummaging in the paper’s cuttings, picking up some of the phrasing. As the tradition’s origin, the heralding of Christ’s birth is mentioned, and the banning of the Catholic mass in the 17th and 18th century; apparently German priests would sneak over the border to hold secret masses in farmers’ sheds, and the Midwinter horn would be used to sound the alarm if they were disturbed. The writer is most convinced by a pre-historic origin, and the chasing away of dark powers, and gives some useful facts on its history and construction:
While in Switzerland and, for example, Hungary, similar horns are used to call the cattle, the use of the Midwinter horn in Twenthe looks most like the “hyrdelurs” played in Sweden and Norway during Midsummer nights. Cave drawings in the south of Sweden from 1800 BC suggest that these horns are older than Methuselah. The Midwinter horn would only have decorated a wall here and there if a few folklorists hadn’t reinvigorated the old custom about 30 years ago. From that time onwards, the mysterious sounds can be heard again over the stubble of the corn fields. Twenthe even has a few craftsmen again who can make the real Midwinter horn. They use a one-and-half meter long birch or alder branch which is drilled in at the thin end for the mouthpiece (in Twente dialect, “de happe”). Then the wood is sawn through lengthwise, are both halves hollowed out with a chisel, glued together and wound round with rattan. (Nv/hN, 20 Dec 1985)

The website of the Ootmarsum Midwinter horn blowers (founded 1992) also regales its history, from pagan origins to Christian instrument for the heralding of Christ and as alarm mechanism. On its modern history and usage:
The tradition of the Midwinter horn blowing was near dying in Twente. Luckily, the custom was restored in the fifties by Toon Borghuis from Oldenzaal. The horns on which we play now are made of wood. From the early 20th century come the tin horns, a product from the village smith. These instruments are a thorn in the ‘ear’ of the fan. Restoring the tradition didn’t go without a hitch. There were two groups who fought for the oldest honour and practices. There are farmers, who think that the ‘oalde roop’, the one simple note of the horn, are the real tradition which needs to be preserved. Others, the melody-blowers, can get a seven-note sound from the horn.
Around 1970 there were already more than 300 blowers who, between St Andrews and the Sunday after Epiphany, produce the mysterious sounds and now the tradition is alive and well! Practiced players can now produce at least four notes from their instrument, and star players can blow a series of seven or eight notes. The melodies are set and there are two common riffs. Many players feel it should stay at that; no ‘Happy Birthday’ and other songs on the Midwinter horns.
What is important for all groups in Twente is that the tradition should not be overshadowed by making it a carnaval. It should remain a solemn occasion. It’s folklore, but a continuation of an stately occurrence. It is also out of the question that more than one horn is blown at the same time. This is against tradition. The sound of one horn has to echo over the land; through this simple means from their own farm, the farmers would notify each other of the days getting longer, and the coming of the Messiah. (Midwinterhoornblazen.nl)

Saasveld, 10 miles further down the road, has its own group (est. 1970) and website. They’ve got more about the history and correct usage. Their outreach activities are still going on, this year for the 66th time:
In the early fifties of the last century the blowing of the Midwinter horn was resuscitated by some famous men from Twente, like the musician Toon Borghuis, Dr Bernink, the architect Jan Jans, beer brewer and folklorist Meijlink and Hendrik Racer Palthe from Everloo. In Saasveld, from 1952 onwards, there was a movement from the folklore group Saterslo to get more attention for the dying tradition of the Midwinter horn. Gerard Hesselink Jr (Holtkamp) with some other villagers, took up the gauntlet, and in 1954 the first organised activities happened. These existed of going round the hospitals and old people’s homes, together with the theatre group Enscheder Spöllers, the “De Krekkel” dancers and taking part in contests. (…)
The neighbourhoods of Saasveld have from the start had an eye for the preserving of tradition in the right but contemporary way. For this, the basis is the trinity of period, horn and call. The period Advent to Ephiphany is for blowing, the horn (wet or dry) is to be made of native wood (such as alder, birch, willow) with a mouthpiece of elder. The call is depending on place or even family (not sheet music).
The past sixty years we have, together with the former group
Kemissie veur ‘t Mirreweensterhoornbloazen and the later foundation from Twente, taken action several times to preserve the tradition in the right way. Tin horns and horns made of slats, plastic mouthpieces and the nailing down of the right call have been discussed. In this context it is notable that the neighbourhood of Saasveld as one of the few is mostly blowing on the wet horn. (midwinterhoornblazerssaasveld.nl)

Early Saasveld blower Hendrik Weghorts with wife and sister

This Commission for the Mirreweenster Horn Blowing organised its first competition on boxing day 1953. Notably, this was done on the tin horns, which were more durable and were easier to blow on. Toon Borghuis did say: “Op ‘n deur mu’t te we’j weer noar ‘t haolt.”“Eventually, we need to go back to wood.” As the goal for the competition he’d stated: “it needs to be a flowing, easy melody; the call from one farmer to the other. That’s the real Midwinter horn blowing, as it can be heard in Advent’s time in the east of Twente, when at hours’ distance it is passed on from one farm to the other.” This competition followed the first organised blowing, on the 18th December 1949. That evening, at 7pm Bernard Boomkamp from Hertme stood with his horn at the well of his Vrielinks farm. The sound was then carried from farm to farm through the area. Around 10:30pm the sound was answered from Losser and Denekamp.

From a folklore thing from a corner of the country, the Midwinter horn became a tourist favourite, and in 1985 the tourist board already organised demonstrations throughout the region. Then, in 1987:
H.G. Lich is in his daily life director of the tourist board in Exloo. Last summer he got a letter from the Spanish organisers of the festival of international customs in Malaga. “If I knew someone who practiced a real Dutch tradition. Then I thought of F. Tenniglo. He is Dutch champion Midwinter horn blower and the only person still making the instrument. I phoned him, told him about the festival and that I had already entered his name. ‘Nothing will come of it,’ he told me. But two weeks later he got a message.”
The Spanish were interested in the Midwinter horn blower from Twente and wrote that a plane ticket was ready for him. Tenniglo then understood what he had signed up for and got cold feet. “I’m happy to come, but not on my own,” he demanded. Lich also had to come.
The tourist board director was keen, but couldn’t play an instrument and also was not a craftsman. “So we got the farmers’ horn of Exloo from the cupboard. You only have to signal with it. Everyone can do that.” However, Lich is not bringing the original. He has put a small whistle in a replica to make it easier to blow on. “They’ll never notice,” the apprentice tooter knows. “The real farmers’ horn remains in the Bebinghehoes in Exloo. We’re afraid it’d get stolen in Spain, or damaged.” (Nv/hN, 12 Dec 1987)

New Year Singing

This is about the New Year Singers, from the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden newspaper, 31 December 1928.

The once so loudly sounding “Neijoarszing’n”, New Year Singing – roughly between Saint Nicolas’ Day and the start of February – is only very sporadically found nowadays. Those “Neijoarzingers” often were very eccentric village types and had typical names. On ‘t Hoogeland, the most northern area of the Netherlands, we have known “BLINDE PAIT”, Blind Pete. “TIDDE TENUE”, “HEN BRINKTJE”, “JAAN KOATJES” en “PAIT NAIN” also were well-known “Neijoarzingers”. The song they sung however was a Christmas song that was very seldom sung in dialect.

Our photo shows FRISTER KLOK in 1918. He was then 75 years old and for three decades he has regularly sung the “Neijoarslaid” in the Ommelanden area. As a boy of eight years old he already went out with his older sister. Klok, who lived in Schildwolde, has died not long ago.

Frister Klok, New Year Singer (1918)

Marten Douwes Teenstra, in his DeKinderwereld (1853) writes (somewhat condensed; the man does gripe on a bit):

On the first of January the year starts for the whole of Christianity, but already before New Year’s Day, around Christmas, poor people and their children start deliver their new years letters to the well-off, or go round the houses with their well-wishing New Year songs; one can not say however that they are nicely worded or “pleasant of voice” – it is more a pesky begging. (…)

In the Ommelanden region, as well as other areas of the country, the begging for a New Year’s gift, which goes with music and singing, is still in use. The musical instrument usually is the rommelpot, named after its sound, which has replaced the earlier used gons and bagpipes. Poor boys then usually start a high and shouting song, as if to frighten children.

Child with a Rommelpot: a tin, a skin and a stick.

On the Hoogeland in Groningen you’ll also find old women who go along the houses around Midwinter (Christmas) and New Year, with the rommelpot to sing new year songs, like:

Doar schenen drei steerens ien ‘t oosten zoo kloar,
Dei schenen drei doagen, drei nachten veur woar,
Al ien dat godzoalige Neije joar” (etc)

Three stars shone in the East so clear,
They shone for sure for three days and three nights
In the holy new year” (etc)

Or another ditty:
“An heurt eerwoarde hoesman schoon
Wat ik joe sal verhoalen,
Hoe God zien ein’ geboren Zoon
Veur ons leid neder doalen.
Te Bethlehem al ien ain stal,
Doar lait het kind ien douken,
En dat veur ons menschen al,
Doar zellen wie ‘t goan zouken.” (enz)

“Hear on dear revered house owner
What I will tell you,
How God let his own born Son
come down for us.
To Bethlehem in a stable,
There it lies in linen,
And that for all people,
That’s where we’ll find it.”

We will not permit ourselves to write out these songs completely. (So concludes Teenstra.)

The Light of Zeerijp


When Emperor Charlemagne had conquered the Frisians, he ordered them to translate into Latin, and record in writing, all the laws they had hitherto passed down via the oral tradition. The Frisians (to which the Ommelanders also belonged at the time) refused this, and invoked their old customs which barred them from writing down that which was spoken by their elders in the old oracle language. Charlemagne therefore summoned the 12 lawgivers of Frisia, the Wimoedes or Asegas and gave them the choice between obedience or death by the sword, being buried alive or being set adrift at sea in a rudderless ship. The twelve Asegas maintained their refusal and chose a death in the waves.


In Zeerijp they meekly went on board the ship that could sustain one ebb and one flood and were cast out to sea. When they eventually found themselves in peril, one of the oldest remembered the sermons of Willibrord; how the preacher had learnt that Jesus Christ after his arising had appeared amongst his praying friends, whilst the doors of the room in which they sat were closed. He suggested to his fellow sufferers that they should beg for the help and intervention of Jesus. And lo, when the twelve prayed, they saw in the back of the ship a man, much like themselves, who rested with his hand on a rudder pole, with which he guided the ship. So did he bring them back to the harbour from which they had come.


When the thirteenth came to shore with the twelve Asegas, he threw the rudder on the ground, where it caught fire and burnt into a beacon for ships at sea. Then he schooled and taught the twelve and guided them in which of the Frisian laws they would choose in obeisance to the empirical edict. So the Frisians obeyed the Emperor and Christ, and devised the Landrecht, the country law, which was taught to them by Mary’s son. This collection of laws gained the approval of both Emperor and Pope. From that time onwards there appeared in Zeerijp, even when the sea had long retreated from there, and even in the days of our grandparents, a mysterious light – “het Riepster licht”.

Art by Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman (1882-1945), from the Niewsblad van het Noorden newspaper, 24 December 1947. It was inspired by the stained glass windows of the great hall of the university in Groningen, designed by fellow artist Johan Dijkstra. Folk belief has it that the light is still seen in modern times.

Sinterklaas, the Pagan Saint

That the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas, Saint Nicolas, has little do with the historical Bishop of Myra may be well known. Why we do have the figure, or the related Santa Claus, is difficult to explain – it’s a rich stew of adopting, adapting, repressing, and resurrecting of traditions. If only the story was as clear as it was to the people of a century or so ago. The 19th century saw great advances in the reconstructing of our oldest history, and with it an emerging interest in our pre-Christian past; in Germany, the Brothers Grimm were busy and in Friesland the antiquarians were mercilessly trolled with the Oera Linda book. Legends, traditions and celebrations were dissected and with a measure of factoids it was proven that Sinterklaas, too, was pagan. This is how a lecture from 1902, by Dr Koopmans van Boekeren, explained Sinterklaas. Is there truth in it? Sure, but it’s never such a straight line, and for each ‘match’ that he made with a Pagan Germanic god, there will also be characteristics of these gods that he’s conveniently skipping.

But see my horn of plenty, how full of sweets and pretty things. I bring too my bundle of rods. The good get gifts, But he who is bad or doesn’t learn, unless he mends his ways, would need to know, feel my wrath!”

With the introduction of Christianity we have received Sinterklaas because the evangelists understood that the new teachings had to be made palatable, and that was why Christian celebrations were made to coincide with Heathen ones. In Germanic theology you can find the explanation of the customs surrounding the Sinterklaas feast. Wodan, god of the elements, of wind, sea and storm, was highly revered by the seafaring Germanics. Saint Nicolas was originally also the patron saint of sailors; what was easier than swapping one for the other?

During the Jul Feast (25 Dec-6 Jan) Wodan rides his horse Slypnir, accompanied by the loyal Eckhard, through the sky and wears a wide cloak. There we have our Sinterklaas. Wodan is also the god of fertility, because wind creates fertility, and as such the time at which he is celebrated is the time of gift giving. Maybe there’s a bit of the god Janus in Sinterklaas. With the Sinterklaas pastry we are thinking of the Germanic Sacrificial cakes. Thinking of Fro, the god of light and protector of lovers, Sinterklaas became the “hylickmacker”, “wedding maker”. The “vrijer” and “vrijster” of speculatius is explained. Fro’s wagon was pulled by wild pigs with golden tufts, hence the Sinterklaas Pig. Pepernoten (ginger nuts), instead of regular nuts, remind us of Donar. The chimney is the connection between the ghostly world and the human in the Germanic theology. Putting your shoe in front of the fireplace is also Germanic. The bundle of rods is possibly the rod of life of the Germanics, with which they would beat against trees to make them bear fruit. Salt is the sign of wisdom. The helper is the loyal Eckhardt; probably there’s thoughts of fairies, and he’s made black to denote the invisibility of fairies.

And why does he come from Spain? Old-Germanic folk belief has an important place for the commemoration of souls. A soul could for example leave the body in the evening, and return in the morning. When someone died, the soul left the body and if a child was born a soul would settle in it. When souls didn’t live in a body they lived in a land of light and sunshine, the Engelland. This glorious land was, when facts got muddled, transposed to Spain, known as a country of light and sun, rich with lovely flowers and fruits.
All attempts to banish Sinterklaas during the Reformation were doomed, as Sinterklaas is not a Catholic holy man, and the Sinterklaas feast not a Catholic celebration. The speaker ends by warning his audience never to replace the children’s feast of Sinterklaas with Christmas; the latter has a deep and holy meaning, but will never be a children’s feast in the sense of the first.

Sinterklaas as a fierce crusader knight, published between 1840-50. He arrives on a flying horse, which has small wings on the lower legs.

Decades later they’re still not done with the Pagan Past. Grimm and other folklorists are still quoted, and the (pseudo)mythology would get out of hand over the next decade; sources from the later ’30s and the ’40s are suspect because their primary function was propaganda. From a northern Dutch newspaper article from 1931:

A shoe is put underneath the chimney. Putting your shoe with someone meant, in earlier days, to beg something from someone. The Wild Hunter (Wodan) fills shoes and boots with gold. In one of his fairytales Grimm tells us that on order of the Wild Hunter, a farmer takes off his boots, which are then filled with the blood from a newly shot deer. When he comes home, the blood has turned into gold. In Mecklenburg the bride puts a piece of gold in each of her shoes before her wedding – she’ll never lack for money. A serpent’s tongue in each shoe will make one invulnerable, according to folk belief. Whoever, at night, pulls three strands of straw backwards from the roof and puts them in his shoe will not be barked at by the dog.

The shoe of Sint Nicolas is in the first place to put out fodder for the horse of Sinterklaas: grain, hay, straw, and bread will be put in the shoe in our province. Compare that with the many places in Germany and Scandinavia where a sheaf of corn is left on the land for Wodan’s horse. An offering for the God of fertility. And the shoe is chosen, as we could see, because a link with the magical world is found that way.

Black Pete carries a bundle of rods and a bell. The bell is for fertility. On Christmas Eve boys in a lot of German places walk round with belts full of cow bells; in the lower Inndal the youngsters cross in the spring through the fields with bells, “das Gras auslauten” to help the growing of grass.

Sinterklaas, Saint Martin, Ruprecht, all who give gifts are also armed with a bundle of rods. On 10th November, the Bayern shepherd gives his farmer, his boss, a green twig (Martinus Gerte) to stick behind the cribs or the stable door, to protect the cattle against disaster during the winter, and in the spring it’s used to drive the cows to the meadow. So, the twig also is connected with fertility, as with Saint Nicolas. In Switzerland Saint Nicolas has a decorated tree in his hand, in Hamburg a green branch.

But we spoil the twig, symbol of fertility, by turning it into an instrument of punishment.

From a ‘cents print’ from between 1870-1890. 1)”Och, little Kees gives me so much sorrow. He’s always naughty. Where is the rascal? I’ll give him with my bundle of rods.” 2) “Children, tomorrow is Saint-Nicolas. Set your shoes under the chimney, and put some flowers and hay in them.” 3) “Let’s visit little Marie, who I love so much because she learns so well. I will give her a lot of toys and sweets.” No Black Pete here; Sinterklaas’ helper is closer to Ruprecht. He carries the bundle of rods to punish bad children, but not a bell but a lamp; like Diogenes looking for a honest child? The children put their shoes at the fireplace, with flowers for Saint Nic and hay for his horse.

A Visit from Sint and Piet

My father was bashful when Sinterklaas, Saint Nicolas, came visiting. I don’t know who is playing the Good Holy Man and who Black Pete is underneath the shoe polish. What I do know is that it’s a home visit; the portraits on the wall are of my great-grandparents and that the photo was taken on the 5th of December 1945, not long after the war.

While in the northern Netherlands the exact appearance of Sinterklaas, let alone his helper, were not chrystalised for a long time, by this time it was the ‘national’ Sinterklaas: he’d arrive in the country a few weeks before his birthday. The village where I and many of my forefathers were born, and where my dad grew up, Houwerzijl, usefully has a harbour, so he’d have arrived by boat, and be welcomed by the local dignitary (and the local children, of course). There may be a festive reception in the local town hall.

Sinterklaas visiting homes isn’t really a thing; maybe they decided to ‘go big’ in 1945, after the war. Usually on the evening of the 5th, his birthday, a helpful neighbour would leave the laundry basket with gifts outside, and knock on the window, sending the children into a frenzy. When I was young, a great aunt would don an arm-length black glove, creep in the house and, with only her arm visible, throw hands full of candy into the room. Smickelmik, it’s called in Groninger dialect, literally throw candy. “Black Pete! Black Pete!” my brothers would shout (they were a bit older, and in on it), and I was probably looking the other way. Ah well.

When I was about 10, one of my brothers and a friend borrowed some Black Pete costumes; they were made by the lady across the road, who also rented the costumes out to the schools – they were very well made. They had a plan to go round the houses in the street where there were little children, armed with a big book, masquerading as Sinterklaas’ big book of who’s naughty and nice, and a big bag of candy to dole out. I was also allowed to come, so my mom cobbled a costume together for me too. Dressed up we visited the half a dozen families with children; and we knew these children of course, so could ‘read’ what Sint had written: (“So, Berend, I read that you ride your bicycle awfully hard through the street? Will you be a bit more careful?”)

I’m sure that we made an impression on those children, who were young enough to believe that we were the real deal. It would’ve been an experience that far surpassed a 10 second photo-op with a Santa in a grotto in the shopping mall, amidst hordes of screaming children, herded along by bored elves. But here’s the thing: the costumes were those of a ‘Golden Age’ page boy, and came with wigs of curly black hair and big hoop ear rings. My mom had thoroughly blacked us up with shoe polish, and had not been sparing with her reddest lipstick. And we did our Black Pete act in a broken Dutch accent, an attempt at and parody of a colonial accent. This, for us, was Black Pete.

Let’s back up some years. My oldest brother was 6. It was summer; my mom was busy when the doorbell rang, so little Kees opened. “Mom! Black Pete is at the door!” he came running into the kitchen, leaving my mother to apologise to the Black door-to-door salesman. When we grew up, our comics and children’s books had taught us that Black people lived in Africa, and wore grass skirts. There were definitely no Black people in the villages where we grew up. For little Kees, a Black man showing up at the front door was, by definition, Black Pete. And that still was the case a decade later; we had some Black people on television, and in films, but they were never part of our reality, and we didn’t equate our racist portrayal of Black Pete with the real lives and experiences of Black people.

This, however, is 2020, and Black people in the Netherlands have been very vocal about their experiences. Each year sees children being bullied, being called Black Pete, and each year they are reminded of the country’s past, in which their forefathers were abducted and used for forced labour in our colonies. That’s a history that Dutch society still has to reconcile itself with, and would rather skim over. “If they don’t like Black Pete, let them go back to their own country,” they hear, while the Netherlands is their country. Or they’ve got to like being called Black Pete because “it’s an honour, really,” though giving them no choice in the matter still shows them who is the master. And what you often hear: “It’s not a Black person! It’s soot, from the chimney!” Why then the page boy costumes, and the curly wigs and the caricature lips? When we rounded our consonants and mangled our grammar, we knew full well it was no chimney sweep we were impersonating.

And yet, now the Black Pete is increasingly turning into Pete, and full black or brown face paint is replaced with smudges of black, like soot, this won’t do at all for the Pete apologists; when all their arguments have been wiped off the table, they insist that “It’s tradition. End of.” There’s hope, though: Prime Minister Mark Rutte, defending the image of Black Pete just a few years ago has now reconsidered, and is fine with the Soot Pete. It’s also been relatively quiet on Facebook and in regards to “Pro Pete” demonstrations (though this also due to Covid restrictions). It may be that for a lot of people the George Floyd protests have brought a measure of understanding and empathy. As for the hardline agitators – the country’s Concerned Citizens seem to have moved on to anti-mask and Q-Anon activism…

The Hidden Graveyard of Ol Weem

In the mid-19th century, folklorist Marten Douwes Teenstra versed:

Borries too, the dreaded hound,
With glowing eyes here roams round
And lets his tail hang just a little
He comes from Weem or is just going
You see the Plague dog always alone
It keeps to itself and to its own.

Like other ghostly apparitions, the northern Dutch hell-hound Borries is found in the vicinity of wierden, the man-made hills on which many farms and villages in the area are built. One wierde, now a national monument, is called Ol Weem, close to the villages of Houwerzijl and Niekerk. Ol Weem is Gronings for The Old Rectory, which was the last building to disappear from the village of Vliedorp. Nowadays, nothing more than a score of grave stones remains of the village.

The wierde was built in the early centuries CE. The first building we know of is a stone church, built around 1200, but it’s assumed that the wierde had a pagan chapel in its first centuries, before the area was christianised around 800 by the missionary Liudger. The village of Vliedorp is first mentioned in 1418 as ‘to Fleghum’, from the old-Frisian for ‘refuge place’, the place where people could flee at times of high water. Vliedorp never was much of a village, and by the mid-17th century most of the people lived in the adjoining harbour place Houwerzijl. The church remained in use, until the church was in such a state of disrepair, in the late 1600s, that it was abandoned (source: Zijlma)

A tax list from 1702 notes 22 families living in the parish of Vliedorp, and it can be assumed that there were 22 houses, mainly in Houwerzijl. While the wierde had been built as a refuge place against floods, the Christmas Flood of 1717 was so bad that it even washed over the mound. The already dilapidated church turned into a ruin, and 17 houses in the parish were lost, along with 40 lives. While the houses were rebuilt, the last remnants of the church were finally torn down in 1830. On the mound only the old rectory-farm remained, which was used as labourer’s dwelling for a while, until it too was demolished in 1850.

From that time comes Teenstra’s poem; he’ll have seen the old rectory, after which the mound was then called; Ol from ‘old’, Weem from the Old-Frisian ‘wetheme’, church possession. Rectory isn’t actually quite the right word; these were troubling times, so the rectory was more like a fortified stonehouse, and it came with a barn and stables (source: Pieterman) Only the churchyard now was in use, the last grave dating from 1894. it was a cumbersome last voyage too, especially in autum and winter; when the clay paths were too difficult to traverse, the coffin would travel by boat from Houwerzijl, then carried by 6 bearers along the waterside, and over the small wooden bridge, then up the mound, before finding its resting place .

The path and waterway to Ol Weem, with the wierde in the background.

Part of Ol Weem was dug away in the late 19th and early 20th century for its fertile soil. “Now the graveyard is so much abandoned that nettles and thistles cover the graves, while several times stones have been vandalised,” Rev. Noordhuis- van ‘t Land wrote in 1970(note) . This would be around the time my parents lived in Houwerzijl, while on the other side of Ol Weem, at a farm on the road that lead to Ulrum, my grandfather lived. My parents would send my brothers as toddlers to grandpa; they could watch them from the edge of the village, and my he could see them coming from the other side.

That path was renewed towards the end of the 20th century, when Ol Weem too was cleaned up. It’s a really nice path too, and only slightly marred by the concrete farm road that sprung up parallel to it. Ramblers and cyclists can start off the little village of Houwerzijl after a cup of tea at the Tea Museum, or start at the village of Niekerk after a look at the little whitewashed church, and a peek at the graves at its back. It’s easy to miss the little brick path that leads from Niekerk to Ol Weem, hidden as its entrance is between two houses. Zwarteweg is its name, Black Road, and it must be the path over which Borries roamed.

Zwarteweg, Black Road, with Niekerk in the background.

– Enkele bizonderheden over het kerspel Vliedorp (I.H.Zijlma, Hogelandster, 1964)
– Enkele bijzonderheden uit de geschiedenis van het Kerspel Vliedorp (ds. F.A.W.Noordhuis-van ’t Land, Hogelanster 17-12-1970)
– Wemen en hun bewoners (Lecture by ds. Klaas G. Pieterman, 20 oktober 2015)

The Carrickfergus Lughnasa Fair

(We wrote this years ago for Culture Northern Ireland. It seems that the festival was last held in 2014 and then axed over funding issues.) 

Nowadays, most of us get our food from the supermarket, but in the Ireland from before the industrial revolution the harvest would have been the pivotal moment in the yearly calendar: a good harvest meant that the people had what they needed for the coming year, whereas failed crops could mean ruin and the worst fears for a cold winter. The first of August traditionally saw a harvest festival, Lughnasa, a word that still survives in the Irish word for the month August, Lúnese. When the Irish went abroad, they took Lughnasa with them, and all over the world August is still chosen as the time for family reunions, fairs and year markets, while Lughnasa finds its echoes in the United States both in Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July celebrations. 

Carrickfergus Castle will play host to a traditional Lughnasa harvest festival on the eve of August, the 30th July to be exact. We spoke to the festival’s organiser, Jenny O’Rawe, who is enthusiastic about the festivities to come: “Well, it’s a medieval fair, and we’ve got living history, including sword fighting recreations. There will be magicians and other entertainers; we’ve got a blacksmith, traditional crafts and food – as you may expect at a harvest fair.” With an atmospheric array of Medievally-themed activities and traditional food stalls, visitors will be able to re-awaken to that age-old connection with the soil and the food grown in it, which was so important for our ancestors. Craft demonstrations, too, evoke a connection with the land, and visitors to the Lughnasa Fair will be able to see how natural materials can be made into beautiful things. 

The Carrickfergus Lughnasa harvest festival fits into a grand old historical tradition with very deep roots, that go back to before medieval times, straight into the pre-Christian history.  According to Irish mythology, the festival was initiated by the sun-god Lugh as a funeral commemoration of his foster-mother Tailtiu. It was she who had cleared the plains of Ireland so they could be used for agricultural purposes, but the effort had exhausted her so much that she died from it. Tailtiu’s death was commemorated with funereal games, traditionally contests of skill and strength. Visitors to Carrickfergus Castle themselves can take part in one of these skill tests. O’Rawe: “We’ve got workshops; there’ll be medieval archery so people can come along and learn archery if they want to.” 

Traditionally, Lughnasa was also characterised by dancing and the wearing of berries and fruits, but it’s not all pagan ceremony and Celtic heritage, for in Medieval times the Christian church embraced Lughnasa wholeheartedly, making it the day on which the fields were blessed in order to ensure a fruitful year after the winter’s retreat. It is in fact very likely that Carrickfergus Castle and its grounds already hosted harvest festivals hundreds of years ago in it’s checkered. It’s rumoured that King John, infamous brother of Richard Lionheart, visited the castle, and one can imagine him presiding over, if not quite enjoying, such festivities. 

Built in 1177 by John de Courcy, Norman knight and (for the next 27 years) petty king of eastern Ulster, Carrickfergus Castle was to have a tempestuous history due to its strategic significance. Besieged, expanded and reconfigured over the centuries, it also has a claim to fame as the spot where King William III arrived in Ireland in 1690. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as a prison and a garrison, and it continued to have various military functions right up until 1928, when it achieved the status and preservation of an ancient monument. Nowadays the castle is open to the public wanting a taste of a nobleman’s life in bygone centuries, and its restored banqueting hall plays host to authentic medieval banquets.

While the Lughnasa Fair’s medieval re-enactments and the traditional local crafts will satisfy history enthusiasts, there’s also plenty to keep the kids entertained, If previous years are anything to go by, we can expect face painting, acrobats, storytelling and street theatre. The magicians that have been advertised will no doubt go down well with the youngsters currently hyped up by the last Harry Potter movie. Jenny O’Rawe is sure that nobody will leave disappointed: “It’s for everybody, children, adults; we’ve got something for everyone.”

We’ve done a little research, and discovered that Lughnasa was a popular time for handfastings. These were trial marriages which lasted a year and a day, after which the couple had the choice of ending the contract before the new year rolled round, or formalising it for the rest of their lives. Perhaps those who celebrate Lughnasa at Carrickfergus Castle should keep this in mind: you never know who you might come home with, even if it’s only for a year and a day!