The Labourer Who Cried Werewolf

I was poking around in the Dutch newspaper archive, and found this contemporary write-up of the Beast of Gévaudan:

Paris, 27 November. The newspapers of this city mention a strange horror-animal, which is said to have killed several people, and has shown itself in the forest of Mercoire, near Langogne (a small city with a castle and a harbour, in the north-east of Gascogne and Bazadois; on the river Garonne); according to the descriptions of it, it can not be counted under any known species of animals: some guessed it a panther or leopard, others a hyena, others yet again the cub of a she-wolf who has played with a dog, and finally others said it to be a werewolf; though some who doubt the veracity of the story guess that it has come from a story about a strange animal, which had shown itself for some years in Germany, and was shot to death there, and from which at some printers the image can still be found. (Middelburgsche Courant 4 December 1764)

The wolf shot by François Antoine on September 21, 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV

From the same newspaper then, 16 May 1780, this advertisement: A FARM HAND, or so-called WEREWOLF, who can do all sorts, but is unmarried, and also is a BRICK LAYER, if it pleases you, will serve you in these qualities, on a sortable tractement, on a plantation in Rio Essequebo, can be reached via the publisher of this newspaper for more details.

And again, on the 5th March 1801: A BRICKLAYER and a WEREWOLF, both requiring solid employment for 7 or 8 months, with or without board – write urgently to A. Keur in Arnemuiden for information.

On 16 May 1815: A skillful WEREWOLF needed, D. 78.

So, apparently there’d been a tradition to call a labourer a werewolf. This was not something I was familiar with, and seems to have been a very local usage, as this is all in one newspaper, on one of the southern Dutch islands of Zeeland. Looking in modern and older dictionaries, I don’t find any support for it – it only mentions weerwolf as the supernatural being; a person changing themselves into a wolf.

What I did find was a windmill called De Weerwolf, erected in 1878 in Essenbeek, not a huge distance from Middelburg. There’s another one in Leiden, De Weerwolf or De Wolff near Leiden, built in (or before) 1645 and disappeared before 1820. There further are several water mills called Waterwolf, including one close to where I grew up. According to Wikipedia waterwolf refers to the water’s tendency to swallow up land (like a greedy wolf), but I think it works both ways – by naming the mill, you ask it to swallow water, as the windmill would swallow weather (weer).

Water pumping station De Waterwolf, Lauwerzijl in 1927

So, how do we bring that back to our labourer looking for work? Several Dutch werewolf stories I know are about labourers or other people of the lower classes (the upper classes stick to vampirism, I’d say). The Dutch folklore database links lycanthropy with insatiability – when calling a water- or windmill insatiable, it’s saying they swallow up the water, the wind, but also they get the work done. So, perhaps it’s very simple – the labourer calling himself a werewolf says: “I work hard; throw it at me and I’ll get it done!”

Beware of “Reasonable” Fascists

In the first paragraph of our Oera Linda blog post I’d stated that the Oera Linda Book is a fake, co-opted by the Nazis in the 1930s, and now a darling of neo-Nazis. A while ago I couldn’t sleep, and looked on the internet for documentaries on the Oera Linda Book (as you do). The first Google result was a documentary in a series called Our Subverted History.

It had a voice-over establishing that the origins of the book were disputed, and it claimed not to have answers, just to present the facts, saying the viewer could then make up their own mind. It was a soft, measured, reasonable voice. The music was atmospheric – a low synthesiser drone; “mists of time” stuff. The footage playing beneath the voice-over was historical footage of the six-spoked wheel, central to the Book and its script (“stand skrift” – “sanskrit” aha!). In black and white, it showed the wheel in Frisian (northern-Dutch/German?) folk art, decorating farm gables, even traditionally baked celebratory loaves.

Without knowing the precise origins of the footage, I can safely say: That’s from a Nazi propaganda film. The unwary reader does well to be careful, as the material is as insidious as it’s enticing: it would be so lovely to find pagan roots in your own culture. There probably are, but first of all you have to ask whether those roots add relevance to what it is now, and secondly – is the thing really the thing we think it is?In this sequence we see real examples of folk art, with the wheel motive. The first one is introduced with runes, and a sprig of wholesome flowers.

Many images are homely. Then we see a young woman, of the Nordic type, showing an amulet in the same style to a craftsman, who sets to work – drawing out a big rune (note the swastika on the pot in the distance). We’ve already wandered in falsification here. Then children parading with what I guess is based on an Easter bread; they should be a bread cockerel on top of a wooden cross – what these children are carrying seems another falsification to me. We’re carefully led up the garden path by the original filmmakers.

By repeating the (six-spoked) wheel that forms the basis of the Oera Linda’s script, again and again the documentary makers imply legitimacy, but it’s a false comparison at best. Would we point at a car’s hubcap and say: “See?” Likewise, should we look at the Frisian folk art, as shown in the documentary, and find the Germanic sun wheel? We see a woodcarver at work in the documentary, and various examples of woodcarving work. Around our home, we ourselves have several family heirlooms carved in this typical Frisian style.

The oldest examples the various museums have of this characteristically Frisian craft are from the 17th century, so not as old as you might think. This doesn’t say everything – it was indeed an ‘at home’ craft, taught by fathers to sons, or by copying what you had around the house. It’s something that doesn’t take a lot of time to learn (though to do it well is a different matter) and definitely doesn’t take a lot of space. This spoon rack is a very good example of it.

It was made around the turn of the last century by my great grandfather, Sietze van Dijk, who was a potter in Friesland. In his spare time, he also carved various other decorative to display around the house, using the traditional motifs. We’ve got a pair of clogs, a picture frame, and the spoon rack.

We indeed see the circle motif there, which the documentary presents as the Frisian folk memory of the pagan sun wheel. Firstly, I can safely say that my great grandfather, who died in 1945 at the age of 75, didn’t have much truck with the Nazis. He’d probably have called what he carved ‘patterns’, and if prompted he’d explain that the shapes are stylised and geometric because that’s the most natural way of carving wood with a chisel and knife. If pressed, I’m willing to bet he’d recognise the circles as flowers, not suns, and definitely not pagan sun wheels.

The claim that there are pagan sun wheels hiding in plain sight in Frisian material culture falls apart when we actually look at more aspects of that culture. If the Frisians were so keen on surrounding themselves with sun wheels, then we’d see that elsewhere too. However, look at the traditional painting work from Hindeloopen, which like the woodcarving was a folk art and mainly used to decorate one’s own home, from which we also have the first examples from the 17th century. We’ve got samples of this around the house too – some household objects we bought at a second-hand shop, others that were painted by my own dad after he’d taken a course. They’re not quite identical, but definitely all from a very strong tradition. There are circular motifs here, and some even divided into six equal parts. They’re flowers.

When dealing with northern Dutch folklore, you really have to be on your guard – when researching you inevitably stumble on fascist sources, either modern or from the 1930s, and you have to double check whether the material is being correctly interpreted. And when writing it up, for the avoidance of doubt any doubt, you’ve got to be clear where you stand, so you won’t end up in a library of neo-fascist source texts. That documentary about the Oera Linda Book presented a warm bed for anyone who’d be willing to have an open mind. They were definitely fascists though, and hiding in plain sight.

All their documentaries started with this slide. I’ve reported the channel to YouTube, and I hope this in itself is enough for it to be taken down. “Our Pagan Past” is a well which is truly poisoned; one that I’m loathe to drink from, and also don’t want to stand at the handle of, cranking up buckets for others.

(RvS)

A Valentine’s Day Playlist

When you find absolutely the most perfect song for your characters and their relationship… If Kaila (from The Red Man and Others) were to have a Valentine’s song for Ymke, it’d be Jocelyn Pook’s track “Upon This Rock”. More on this song here.

I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself.
I am in love.

And what would Ymke sing for Kaila? Perhaps this staple of northern Dutch dialect music, Ede Staal’s “Het Hogelaand”, here sung by Marlene Bakker (with apologies for the sound quality). Read about it here.

It’s a nice evening in May; a cow is coughing in the grassland.
I’m dating for the first time, and feel the sparks from your hand.

It’s a wistful song, full of homesickness, and I imagine Ymke can’t sing it without thinking of the farm she left behind up north, and without crying. But then – she did find those sparks coming from Kaila’s hand.

And what about Sebastien, then? Kaila will tease him mercilessly for it, but we’re guessing that he’d be listening to The Cure, feeling awfully sorry for himself. Sebastien has a push/pull relationship with Kaila and Ymke, yet he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go – or rather, anyone else to run to. It wasn’t meant to be like that either: we started out with Kaila and Sebastien as a duo for our Fantasy stories, but then Ymke stepped over from her own story into theirs, and it became Kaila and Ymke, and Sebastien found himself sidelined in his own adventures. That’s why we chose The Cure’s track “Homesick” (from Disintegration):

Doesn’t he have a secret love, then? Well, there’s this woman he met, before Kaila crossed his path. It’s a story that’s yet to appear. While most of the lyrics of Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s “Remnants of a Deeper Purity” don’t really match, the feel of the song is spot on!

She was so beautiful to watch drifting out into oblivion
A moonfaced memory with eyes down turned
Are you the one the one I’ve been dreaming of?

We love these songs ourselves, and the albums they come from have been on repeat while we are writing. But of course, Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien are parts of ourselves, so perhaps it’s not so strange that the songs that’d chime with them, are those that we love ourselves!

Why is that Santa Creepy?

Every December, compilations of creepy vintage Santas go viral online, as people laugh at terrifying Saint Nicks culled from family photo albums, old print media and the depths of the internet. These Santas’ eyes are either dead or filled with an infernal rage, and their beards are either unconvincing or all too convincing, more evoking a wild man of the woods than a saint dedicated to rewarding good children and punishing bad ones: one almost suspects that meeting some of these Santas was the punishment!

Some of the scariest Santas wear masks, giving the impression either of the reanimated dead, or of something alive but unwholesome lurking within. It’s those masks that we want to talk about. As is the case with so much around Christmas, they seem to be a modern, urban survival of a much older and rural custom, drawing on not just the Christian St. Nicholas, but on various, sometimes pagan winter guising customs found across Europe, in which scares, disguise and disruption are often intentional and prominent.

Over the years, with immigration and urbanisation, Saint Nicholas customs from different times and places met and merged with each other and with new ideas from literary culture and illustration. As the 20th century wore on, both Santa Claus in the UK and US, and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, became familiar and homogenised due to mass media advertising. But in small communities, costumes would often have been improvised with what was to hand, and the collective memory of earlier traditions may have been less diluted, and clinging on tenaciously – as indeed happened in the northern Netherlands. This too must eventually have fed into commercial Santa masks.

Nicholas, in various countries, was often accompanied by a servant or herald character, such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, Ruprecht in Germany, or the Alpine Krampus. Sometimes he did not appear as a stately old man, but as a more frightening figure, such as Belsnickel, in the Dutch north and Germany. Immigrants to Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch, actually, German), took Belsnickel with them and there he took the form of a bewigged and masked figure, in a sort of parody of gentleman’s dress, though he was generally played by a lower class man.

And Belsnickel was only sometimes there to reward good children, or even punish bad ones: in 1831, shopkeeper James L. Morris, in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, described in his diary a visit from several marauding Beksnickels:

Christmas Eve – a few ‘belsnickels or ‘kriskinckles’ were prowling about this evening frightening the women and children, with their uncouth appearance – made up of cast-off garments made parti-colored with patches, a false face, a shaggy head of tow, or rather wig, falling profusely over the shoulders and finished out by a most patriarchal beard of whatsoever foreign [material] that could possibly be pressed into such service.”

Far from bearing gifts, they often demanded them. There was a strong tradition, in the early 19th century American Christmas, of class resentments being played out via raucous “callithumpian bands,” door-to-door demands, and general drunken disorder, and the disguised nature of Belsnickel provided both licence and cover for boys and youths to take part. But sometimes it was Saint Nicholas himself who was the frightening, disruptive figure, as in the Boerensinterklaas, or Farmers’ Sinterklaas, who was a terrifying, thumping, chain-shaking character, who we’ve written about before.

In the Netherlands, the small seaside town of Zoutkamp has to this day the tradition of the Sinterklaaslopen, or the Sinterklaas Walk, generally celebrated on the Saturday closest to St. Nicholas Eve (5 December). Townspeople go door to door masked and costumed (often in ways that humorously or critically reference local events), visiting homes where the lights are on, where householders must try to figure out their identity by asking questions which the masked walkers can only answer by nodding or shaking their heads, as they aim to hide who they are. On being recognised, they remove their masks to reveal their faces, and receive an alcoholic drink. Those who have been recognised the most are subsequently noticeable by their unsteady walk.

Likewise, on St. Nicholas Eve, children traditionally receive presents from Sinterklaas, often played by a disguised neighbour. (https://turniplanterns.wordpress.com/2020/12/05/visit-from-sint/) That folk memory of masked winter visitors is bound to have merged, as time went on, with the need to disguise a familiar teacher or congregation member for a school or church children’s Christmas party, with the commercial exploitation of Christmas, and with department stores’ need for Santa to have a consistent appearance throughout the season, regardless of who happens to be playing him.

In 2005 or 2006, we went to an event run by the Northern Ireland Dutch Club: the arrival in Belfast of Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, he arrives by boat from Spain at the end of November, and the Club had done their best to re-enact that – even the Lord Mayor of the time turned up with his chain of office to receive Sint with due pomp. But the performance felt a little thrown together. Several teenagers played Zwarte Piets in blink-182 hoodies, the distinctive hats worn by Moorish servants in Golden Age paintings (and therefore associated with Sint’s servant), and half-hearted blackface – mimicking soot, rather than melanin, per the tradition now thankfully in retreat in the Netherlands.

To provide some context: in the mid-2000s, the annual protests against racist Zwarte Piet performances were beginning to attract international attention, but white Dutch people at the time still, for the most part, resisted change. So we can speculate that the makeshift nature of the costumes allowed for compromise: had they worn full Piet regalia, the barely-there soot makeup might have implied that a political position was being taken. In just the hats, the less conventional make-up could be handwaved due to the lack of commercially available Piet costumes outside the Netherlands.

And this highlighted an interesting thing about Santa and St. Nicholas customs generally: these are child-centred festivals, but they’re not organised by children, so the imagery and behaviour of the gift-giving (or punishing) figure are inevitably shaped by the memories of the adults in a community, and the traditions they grew up with. Masking, guising, features heavily in the northern European Midwinter traditions, like the mummers in Ireland and Britain, and the masks, schebelskoppen, that would feature in northern Dutch shop displays in living memory.

While traditions and customs change, they tend to be preserved longer by diasporic communities. Especially in rural areas without much inward population movement, like the 19th century immigrant communities in America, older folkways are more likely to live on, in a conscious preservation of cultural identity, though eventually adapted through general cultural influences and materials available for costuming – including a creepier, masked Santa.

Of course, in 2021, masks on seasonal visitors have a new and inescapable significance, and with that in mind we wish you all a happy, safe and healthy Christmas season.

ABA

The Sea, My High Tide Lover

We’ve made a trailer for our story For All the Dead, which will appear in Flame Tree Press’ collection of horror stories, Beyond the Veil. You can read more about it here, and of course order it at your indie book store or online.

We really had fun with this one! The frame you see at the start was carved about 125 years ago by my great-grandfather, Sietze van Dijk, in traditionally Frisian style. It (usually) holds the 1895 wedding photo of my great-grandparents.

The shanty, with lyrics, is our own, though of course we’d secretly be quite chuffed if someone were to think it a traditional song:

The sea she is my high tide lover,
She provides me with her waves.
The sea she is a jealous lover,
And she took back all she gave.

In preparation for our story we wrote down several bits of lore the people of our (fictional) Soltcamp would believe about the sea. Not all of it made it into the story, though we hope that the idea of the sea as an off-page but very present character remains. We’d like to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • They knew that the sea would keep taking; a different force acted there than on the land. On the first day, God divided the Earth and the Sea. While God dwelled on the land, he was not welcome beyond the dike.
  • The sea is like a mistress: the men of Soltcamp plow her at night-time with the prows of their boats, and in daytime they return home to their wives’ beds to sleep and rest.
  • There wasn’t a man or woman born on the coast who couldn’t read the sea and the sky like a book. It was the book they read next to the Bible – they kept one eye on the Bible, the other on the sea.
  • It was a thing for the widows and orphans, and fewer orphans came every year, as the boys grew up and followed their dead fathers to the sea, or followed their own instincts inland, away from the salt air. There were some whose blood the sea never called to, and sometimes she thought they were the lucky ones.
  • The people from Ollerom look down on the Soltcampers as a lesser community. They call them fish heads, and act as if the smell of fish never leaves them, no matter how much soap they use.
  • Pastor Arend was at one point called Joannes: Oane is an old Frysian version of Anne, and I guess of Joannes. Joannes is a call-back too, to Oannes, the fish-man sage of Sumerian legend, who brought writing, arts and the sciences to man. It wouldn’t make sense for there to be a connection, of course.
  • The underlying event here is initiation into womanhood. Does the girl want the knowledge that comes with growing up and taking on the responsibility of marriage? Or, to turn it around: does the mother want to pass on the knowledge that will mean her daughter is decisively no longer a child and has to make her own mistakes?

Angeline on a very cold day in early April 2013, at the monument for the 83 fishermen of the village of Paesens-Moddergat, who drowned in the night from 5 on 6 March 1883.

Dwarves

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?

(aba)

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:
START WELL: NO DRAGGING
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?

(RvS)

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.”
(etc)

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