Beyond the Veil

Still discombobulated from the paperback launch of The Red Man and Others, we got the message that the line-up of Flame Tree Press’s Beyond the Veil would be made public.

You can find the full list on Flame Tree Press’s blog post, as well as links to further info on each author. This anthology will come out on Kindle, in paperback and in hardback in October, just in time for Hallowe’en. It was edited by Mark Morris, and contains twenty original horror stories, sixteen of which were commissioned from some of the top names of the genre, with the other four selected from hundreds of submissions.

It’s a great list of names, and we are really proud to see ours amongst Priya Sharma, Toby Litt, Matthew Holness (Dream Weaver, and actor, of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace of which we’re huge fans), Lisa Tuttle, and Jeremy Dyson (League of Gentlemen, another favourite of ours).

For our story, For All The Dead, we returned to the area I grew up in, close to the Northern Dutch coast, but that of a century and a bit back. We find ourselves in Soltcamp, the fictionalised version of Zoutkamp, the fisherman’s village that once lay by the sea. It’s a village where the people kept, in the words of one of our characters, ‘one eye on the Bible, the other on the sea.’ It allowed us to play with the folklore of the sea, and embroider our own mythology.

Familiar as we are with the history of Zoutkamp, we worked in elements of one of its infamous residents of the past, the seer Meldine, who was said to have made many predictions of things still to happen, and with her followers to practice her own particular version of Christianity. She is said to have appeared at funerals to preach about the fate of the departed, until the villagers felt she carried that too far and told her to stop. You can read more about Meldine, and other prophets of the sea, in our article for Northern Earth.

The sea, an ever lurking danger behind the dikes of the low-lying areas, certainly had a hold over the people of the coast. It provided their livelihood, but several big floods also devastated the countryside. Chief amongst them was the Christmas flood of 1717, claiming 14,000 lives, but there were other dangers. For our story we were thinking of the disaster of of 1883. A few years ago we visited the monument on the dike of the village of Moddergat on a cold and windy April day; its plaque tells how 109 fishermen went out on 22 ships, and how 17 ships and 83 men remained at sea.

The sea giveth, and she taketh away.

Unboxing The Hunt

Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!

You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…

Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!

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 Light of Zeerijp

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

A&N’s Wild Hunt

Today we received the proof of our story for the upcoming Air & Nothingness Press collection The Wild Hunt, which contains our tale With One Eye, Bright As A Star. This is something we’re enormously proud of!

Air & Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress and handmade limited editions. In an age of POD they publish collector’s items, books which are beautiful and nicely produced as objects. We already loved the cover of their previous collection, Upon a Once Time, and find the one for The Wild Hunt absolutely stunning! In French folded covers, it samples art by Franz von Stuck, and combines it with daring typography. We are very much looking forward to its appearance, so we can share it and our story with you!

We’re especially proud of this story appearing in the collection, as it’s one of the more personal stories we’ve written. Sure, it has a supernatural angle (how could it not!), but the boy at the centre of this particular Wild Hunt could have been me, in the distant past. It is set in the landscape where I grew up, where stories of the Wild Hunt are indeed part of our folklore. The boy’s grandfather meanwhile is a lot like the one I knew, with elements of my other grandfather, who died before I was born; he’d been in the Royal Dutch Cavalry before he settled back in the village where he was born (and I too) and became a farm hand. I never knew him, but have often imagined what he was like.

My opa Kees, on the left

(RvS)

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.

Sources:
– 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)

Folk and Tradition

With the world seemingly on fire, we decided to take ourselves away from the news pages and start transcribing these notes that had been in a poly pocket for a while. We thought that they’d make good underpinnings for an article, but when going through them it another thought struck us: we could use the devastated, haunted world it described as the one that Kaila and Sebastien, and possibly Ymke, travel through in one more adventure, the idea for which we had last week. 

When my father, Brendan, died suddenly in 1981, he left behind a vast array of material, from notes to full-fledged research papers. The Folk Museum and the National Archive took what they could make use of. The rest, Rem and I gradually explored over the past decade. The papers had sat in boxes in the attic of my childhood home for years. I was born two days after his death, so you can understand my mother having better things to do than trawl through it. As it was, Rem and I kept thinking we’d found it all, and then suddenly another box would turn up.

To say it’s odd to be born after a parent dies is an understatement – though it can’t be uncommon in a society like ours, where so many people have died suddenly in far more traumatic ways. You make everything up as you go along, including your relationship with their memory.

If you know The Time Traveller’s Wife, think of the scene when Henry travels forward in time, to be greeted by his stricken daughter, still a child. He realises that he’s intruded on a part of the future where he doesn’t exist, and it’s much sooner than he would’ve guessed. Something about that scene has always resonated intensely with me. The weirdness is heightened by the fact my dad became a father late in more senses than one: he was born in 1917, I in 1981. So exploring family history is also, immediately, just… history.

Some years ago my dad’s uncle, the actor, writer and all-round ambassador of Irish culture Richard Hayward, was honoured with a biography and a symposium. Richard Hayward in his time was a much-loved and much-seen figure, while my dad, in contrast, did most of his work in relative anonymity. I used to think I needed to do something about all this: a biography. And then my health got worse and I realised I couldn’t subsume my own life in his. And yet… bits of his work, his life, work their way into my fiction more and more. Maybe that’s its own solution.

(ABA) 

Columns of Fire: Mepske van ‘t Faan

Rudolf de Mepsche and the northern Dutch sodomy persecutions of 1731 

Illustration from 1956 by Dutch illustrator Hans Kresse

“This inhuman tyrant found the wages of his cruelty in the following horrible death. The vermin devoured him alive – his appearance became so horrible, his lodgings so disgusting, that his next of kin could neither with money nor good words find anyone to help him in his last days.”

In his history of the province of Groningen, Dr. A. Smith positively gloats when he relates the fate of that scourge of the Groninger West Quarter, Rudolf de Mepsche, called the Devil of Faan. De Mepsche’s legend is not unlike that of Matthew Hopkins, though witch hunts were long a thing of the past for the God-fearing Dutch in the unquiet years of 1730 and 1731. It was the biblical sin of Sodomy that stirred them, sparked by a climate of religious strife and political instability. In the west of the newly formed republic the sodomite fever burnt itself out within months, but it came to a renewed crescendo in the obscure village of Faan, in the Dutch province of Groningen. 

The landscape of the north seems desolate at first glance, but it has its own quiet beauty. Fields are marked by small roads and paths and clumps of trees. The land is flat, and when turning in a circle you can see the farms, villages and church towers to the far horizon. And there are many towers, because Dutch history is marked by religious schisms. Of De Mepsche’s borg, a stronghold turned mansion, nothing remains: it was demolished in the 19th century, its grounds cleared in the 1950s. All that remains is the driveway, now leading to the farm “Bijma”. It is as if the local powers wanted to erase all memory of the monster, and even recently plans to erect a monument for his victims were torpedoed. A plaque, the authorities decided, would suffice.

The grounds where the borg and church of Faan stood. Only part of the original entrance lane remains, as visible. In 1957, the borg long demolished, the terrain was cleared to make it ready for agriculture. Rumour went that between the foundations of the cellar the workmen found the chains with which the victims had been shackled. In reality, nothing remarkable was found. A couple of years ago, archaeological research was done on the terrain, which again yielded nothing worth mentioning. 

Almost unlimited power in an isolated community allowed De Mepsche to develop into a regional equivalent to England’s Witchfinder General. The supernatural shadow of his reign of terror extends well into modern times, and offers a prime example of how traumatic events keep local tongues wagging, and how the resulting folktales become accepted history. Credible books have been written about the terrible events of Faan, but ordinary people of the region will at best steer by a 1925 booklet by H.F. Poort, republished in 1986, exposing a whole new generation to its many errors and half-truths. The story roughly goes like this: 

De Mepsche, or Mepske van Faan, was a corrupt and cruel nobleman who wanted to eliminate his enemies and seize their wealth. According to Poort, he finds “an article that speaks of Sodomia, an evil that especially in medieval times was punished with horrible torture and even death. With a grin he says, no, shouts out: That shall be it! That shall be it!” He tortures and hangs two dozen innocents, but  for this terrible deed he is banished and finally dies horribly himself. The story doesn’t quite end there, though, and the farm on De Mepsche’s former lands is reputedly the focus of much supernatural activity. His ghost haunts there, they say, and each year on the anniversary of his death he tears at the blinds and howls from amongst the old beech trees. 

A widely known story was told to Martha van Straten, mother of one of your authors, when she grew up in the village of Niekerk, not far from Faan. On the morning of the annual fair and cattle market of nearby Roden, farmers would find their cows loose in the stables. The following evening, she told us, the sky above Faan is blood red, with columns of fire and rising clouds of smoke: a reminder to the good farmers of the area of the horrors that happened in their midst. She is quick to point out that she never believed the stories, and when another local asked the residents of the farm about the wood panel from which the bloodstains supposedly could not be washed, he was told: “Och son, don’t let yourself be taken in.”

Map of the northern Dutch province of Groningen, with in the west the Westerkwartier district. Het Faan is marked in red, close to the village of Zuidhorn.

It has proven difficult to make sense of what really happened in Faan in 1731. Many documents became lost or were destroyed, ironically, for their immorality. It appears that Rudolf de Mepsche was a fairly unremarkable but diligent man. Born into an influential family in 1695, he was soon granted responsibilities in local administration, and while only in his mid-twenties he became Grietman of the district, a position he held until his bankruptcy in 1747. The whole province of Groningen consisted of the City and the Lands. The Lands were further divided in sub-quarters, each headed by a Grietman. De Mepsche had virtually absolute powers as Grietman of Oosterdeel Langewold, serving as its prosecutor, clerk and judge. 

Rooted in Germanic, pre-Christian custom, this was originally a democratic system, with a new Grietman chosen annually from amongst eligible farmers. By De Mepsche’s time however, most farmers had sold their vote to either De Mepsche or his rival, Maurits Clant van Hanckema. The only brake on De Mepsche’s legal might was that all expenses for a prosecution came out of his pocket if the accused was cleared or unable to bear the costs of their trial and imprisonment. The law also tried to prevent corruption by not allowing a Grietman to preside over any case in which he himself had a stake or grudge. But these clauses offered little protection to a population that prescribed forgers to be burnt in a kettle, a churchbreaker to have his limbs broken and his head chopped off, and a traitor to have his heart removed – and then shown to him. 

The penalty for the 22 men and boys De Mepsche convicted of sodomy was strangulation, after which the bodies were burnt. This in itself was not particularly aberrant for the times, but the speed and number of De Mepsche’s convictions was, especially for a small community consisting of a handful of villages. On Sunday 20 April a blind boy was the first to be questioned, on the basis of an anonymous note. On 24 September of that same year 19 men were executed and two young boys imprisoned for life. All but a few of them were poor, and the cost of trying them fell entirely to De Mepsche. He didn’t shrink from sentencing a personal friend to the harshest punishment of all: this man was burnt in the face with a torch before being strangled. So it can be safely ruled out that De Mepsche acted out of greed, or sought to eliminate his enemies – at least in the beginning. 

One panel from a contemporary print warning youth of the wages of sin: strangulation.

It was only from the 18th prosecution that things got out of hand. He brought in the city of Groningen’s torturer, with well-off supporters of his rival Clant in the stocks. Clant complained about spurious indictments and the length of the “examinations”, but the city’s council consistently found De Mepsche to be acting within the law, and besides were loathe to meddle in what they regarded as a local affair. It is doubtful whether De Mepsche or his victims were quite sure what sodomy actually was. As all records prudishly speak in euphemisms – “sins against nature” and pecatum mutum de sodomiticum abound – we’re still none the wiser as to the state of their knowledge. Whatever it was, interrogations evoked tearful confessions and embarrassed questions about whether they could escape God’s wrath. 

De Mepsche was on a moral crusade, albeit one horrifying by modern standards. But the instigator of the persecutions in the West Quarter is never mentioned in the legends and in Poort’s book he’s a mere accomplice, reluctant at that. Reverend H.C. van Bijler was an old student friend of De Mepsche, who appointed him minister of the churches of Faan and nearby Niekerk. He was a scholar and something of a writer, and to the isolated locals he represented a window on the rest of the world. Following the 80-year war with Spain (1568-1648), the newly formed Dutch republic was in a state of crisis, with merchant regents and the emerging Orangists vying for supremacy. Closer to home, recent decades had brought cattle plague and the devastating Christmas flood of 1717. 

Van Bijler was sure that his country was about to go under, like Sodom and Gohmorrah, and when a pamphlet brought him news of the sodomy trials in the West of Holland, he knew what he had to do. Soon, he’d completed a book: Helsche boosheit of grouwelyke zonde van sodomie. It starts with a prayer but soon the reverend’s finger jabs: “…to the people who turn around the whole order of Nature, and have unfortunately imported the sins of terrible Sodom into our country, or still practice it. To guard against it and to punish it – the law of the Great God demands.” As a devout Christian, Rudolf De Mepsche could not have received a clearer call to arms to rout out the evil that undermined his own community. 

After the first round of executions a few men still awaited trial. More arrests were made, now on increasingly shaky grounds, the last handful incriminated by youths who had been easily coerced. De Mepsche’s crusading spirits began to slacken as complaints piled up, with relatives and accused going over his head to petition the High Justice in Groningen. As a duly appointed oversight committee took its time looking into the matter, the costs of trial, the execution (including a platform, 3 ships with peat and 70 tons of tar) and now lengthening imprisonments began to exhaust De Mepsche’s coffers. In December 1739 the committee concluded that, as judge of the area, De Mepsche himself was the best person to decide if his own prosecutions were legal. Only in 1747, more than 15 years after their imprisonment, were the last men released who had been prosecuted. 

De Mepsche could afford to be magnanimous: William IV of Orange had bested regents and been appointed to Stadtholder. As loyal supporter, De Mepsche got his debts paid off and he was also rewarded with a new position far from Oosterdeel Langewold. Ironically, for the rest of his life he laboured to dismantle the near-feudal system that had been the making and breaking of him: in Faan he’d been out of his depth, and now knew it. He died, following a slow decline in health, at the age of 59. He was buried in the Martini Church in the centre of Groningen with the highest honors accorded to a nobleman: preceded by drummers and torch bearers, dignitaries carried his coffin, with family, friends and city council members following – a far cry from the man who died, according to one narrator, like some inverted Midas: “Everything he wanted to eat changed into lice, spiders, earwigs, worms. If others ate from it, it was fine. But as soon as he wanted to take something himself, it was all vermin again.” 

The legends may offer a more morally satisfying ending, but the truth provides no such comfort. A handful of accused languished for 15 years in prison without even being put on trial, while public opinion largely remained with De Mepsche. Yes, he had feared enough for riots at the executions to order 300 peacekeeping troops, but most people must have had some trust that God’s justice was being done. Besides, going to see a public execution was considered a grand day out in those days. De Mepsche surely also benefited from the contrast between him and Lewe, tyrannical lord of neighbouring Aduard, who provoked serious riots when he demanded crippling taxes for dyke repairs following the 1717 flood. The real question, then, is how acceptance of De Mepsche as local ruler could take a 180 degree turn into the image of Mepske, duvel van ‘t Foan. 

Drawing of the borg Bijma from a map from 1782

The key to this is another shift in Dutch politics. De Mepsche was a loyal supporter of the Orange party when they were the political underdog, trying to break the power of the ruling merchant elite, but at the end of the 18th century the Orange family had acquired near-royal status and the general population had become thoroughly disenchanted with them. Mob mentality ruled, and pages were rewritten or torn out of the history books wholesale. Everything tainted with Orange was suspect, and generations now unfamiliar with the context of the trials had no truck with one who woud hunt and kill innocent villagers. That man, people said, must have been Satan incarnate. And so he became a local Bluebeard, an avatar of superstition and hatred.

Folk memory is persistent, as is the desire that justice is done: if not by men, then by higher powers. About a decade before historian W.T. Vleer wrote his critical study of the sodomy trials, he gave a lecture to a local club. When he started debunking some of the myths and misconceptions around the case, one old man jumped up and protested: “Mister chairman, this man is lying. It’s horrible. We were always taught that De Mepsche got his comeuppance, and now this man is claiming that God didn’t punish him? All lies, which as a decent man I won’t believe!” 

Who are we to argue? 

Literature:
H. Hofman, “Jeugdherinneringen van een Oud-Niekerker”, Oudheidskamer ‘Aeldakerka’, 1987
H.F. Poort, “Rudolf de Mepsche, of: De Faansche Gruwelen 1731”, Drukkerij Hekkema Zuidhorn 1925, reprinted 1986
K. ter Veer, “Protestants Fundamentalisme in het Groningse Faan”, Uitgeverij Aspect, 2002
W.T. Vleer, “Sterf Sodomieten. Rudolf de Mepsche, de homofielenvervolging, het Faanse zedenproces en de massamoord te Zuidhorn”, self-published, 1972

Borries, the Dreaded Hound

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

It appears that the region around Ulrum, as with other parts of the Netherlands, was rich with ghostly dogs. Ulrum was where M.D. Teenstra lived in the mid-19th century, and he gathered reports of such dogs (and many other superstitions) for Volksverhalen en Legenden (1843) and the three following volumes. Other folklorists, before and after, also gathered material, or elaborated on Teenstra’s.

The disappeared village of Vliedorp, near Vierhuizen, of which even in Teenstra’s time remained nothing more than a score of grave stones and trees. One of the last buildings to disappear was the rectory, the weem in Gronings, for which the place is still called Olle Weem.

A main source for Teenstra was information from the historian Nicolaas Westendorp from his 1820 magazine Antiquiteiten,andsix years later reused in an essay on the application of Norse mythology to what we know of prehistoric religion in the Netherlands. Westendorp writes:

Who will explain to us who Goddess Baduwenna was, whose holy wood is well known from our native history books? Which God was represented by the ghostly calf with big glowing eyes, the black dog with identical eyes, with the haunting black Dog with a key in his mouth from North-Brabant; the three-legged billy-goat, the vehicle of witches; (…) the horse rattling with chains, the man-horse Hommel-stimmel in the Oldambt; (…) the man with a tail and goat’s feet; the ghost in the shape of a man with two horse’s hooves and horns on his head, sometimes clothed in red (…)? Who was the black dog consecrated to which, by howling at someone’s door, would announce a death?

The name for the man-horse Hommel-stimmel is an onomatopoeia, a name describing a thudding sound. You find the same in Stommelstaart (Stumbletail), also known as Borries, the hellhoundseen all over the province, mainly in the direction of Friesland. Westendorp gives a description including eyes the size of dobbelieren. At first I was stumped by this peculiar word and thought it referred to double-yoked eggs. It turns out to be a small bowl of glazed earthenware with a flat bottom which would contain butter, fat or sauce, to dip your potatoes in.

The description is used by several different sources, and proves how much is copied over, not always uncritically, and even locals would quote from older written sources rather than living memory. This includes a report on the Borries from the 1828 schoolmaster surveys. This survey was organised by the Committee of Education, and sent to a large number of teachers in the province, with questions on topography, population, language and customs.

While the piece from Zuurdijk was signed by the schoolteacher, it’s supposedly written by Klaas Jan Beukema of Castor, the farm once belonging to Teenstra’s father. He suggests that this and other ghosts are remnants from heathen times, which may be important to the origin and history of these places. He lists the dogs at de Houw at Leens, Elens and Molenhuizen (Ulrum) and Menneweer, with a nod to Westerdorp’s 1820 magazine Antiquiteiten.

Whereas Teenstra, around the middle of the 19th century, finds the neighbourhood rife with superstition, the Zuurdijk writer, some decades earlier, was more kindly disposed. The mutt itself isn’t so bad either: While one nowadays no longer meets any traces of belief in ghosts and witches, one can hear from old people that, even in the last half of the previous century, a Borries was seen on the Ewer; such a Borries was according to their belief a certain podgy and benevolent sort of hellish creature, in the shape of a big black dog, with glowing eyes, as big as dobbelieren. (…) The borrieses were always seen on the slopes of wierden, mostly on the roads that run past their foot, and where roads diverge.

A wierde is a man-made hill, on which people in the early middle ages would build their farms and churches, before the monks started building the dykes. They’re of early Medieval origin, before Christianity took hold in the area, and it’s tempting indeed to see the spectres as remnants of a pagan past.

Wierde of Ezinge, 1720

In an 1858 summary of his works on folk history and legends, M.D. Teenstra theorises: The most feared ghosts in many areas of our fatherland are werewolves, and it’s an old fairytale that one of seven brothers would be a werewolf, and is under compulsion of the evil one to get up, turn into a black wolf and walk to a designated place, [it is] named by the Greek Lycanthropos, by the French Loup Garou, and in the province of Groningen in the shape of a big black poodle dog called Börries, maybe after Börr from the Norse fables.

Teenstra repeats many of Westendorp’s examples, but adds this one: On the Zoltkamp path, four pieces of land south-west of Ulrum, has been seen and heard in October 1838 a terribly panting, going up and down, following people at a short distance, standing still whenever they stand still, and whenever they’d come nearer, it would retreat, or went sideways into the field; on this black monster, as a reliable witness told me, no head nor legs could be discerned; it looked like a dog but was as big as a sheep.

Teenstra’s witness was a Fr. P. from neighbouring Leens, and according to the footnote: in no way one of the – here so common – Secessionists, but is a true member and light of the unerring and sanctifying church. Teenstra, not a friend of De Cock’s Secession, was a freemason, and his footnote damns his witness with faint praise. I wonder whether Fr. P. saw a confused and maltreated dog, badly in need of a haircut. The fact that people didn’t run screaming but tried to approach it seems to suggest as much. There’s another reason why I (with Teenstra?) doubt the report.

When laying out the sightings of black dogs in the areas on a map, they are indeed all found near wierden. You’ll see them neatly lined up on a naturally higher ridge, which must’ve been less prone to flooding. From the early middle ages the sea retreated slowly, and from the 6th century coastline at Wehe, hamlet after hamlet was founded, each on a wierde.

The only outlier is Teenstra’s example, which falls outside of the chain and does not belong to a landmark.

Map of the Hunsingo area, with its wierden (black circles and dots); red circles are Borries sightings

Onwards with Teenstra: In some nights, especially with quiet weather and a fine drizzle, Hellhounds can be found between Warffum and Warffum’s monastery, which drag along glowing chains. On the southern wierde of the old place Rottum you can find that sort of hound, as well as a firey cart, pulled by 4 or 6 dogs, which goes up and down the lane of the milking place of the former monastery of Rottum. Then, notwithstanding how often terrified people have avoided these dogs (and how many of these poodles are there!), there are also examples of these dogs befriending people, as well as pet dogs.

The long-disappeared monastery of Rottum

In the 1930s Groninger historian K. ter Laan wrote a two part work on local legends, in which he includes tales as told to him. In dialect he writes: At Rotilstermeulen windmill near the Scheemsterweg, it’s a little black dog following you. But when you look back, it’s no longer a little dog; it’s become quite a dog. And then it becomes a big, lumbering dog. First he walks on four little legs, then on four legs, and then only on his back legs. His front legs he lays on your shoulders. And so it goes along with you, just as wide as it’s tall. And when you reach Noordbrouk, you’re drenched with sweat. But harm? No, it won’t harm you none.

Also in the area of the Hogeland: There you have the Widde Wiend, the devil in the shape of a white greyhoud. You’ve got to be careful with him. At first it’s a little thing, walking ahead of you and around you. He wants to guide you, but you know better than that. Don’t say a word! You’ll find out soon then! Out of anger he’ll grow bigger, as he wants to scare you and go with him out of fear. Then you’ve got to quickly get to a house or barn. If he finds out that he’s not getting his way, then he’ll bite you and then you’ll be sorry.

And a closer examination of the Borries, penned by Ter Laan: Everyone knows what a barries is – a big hulk of a dog. But for a borries you have to watch out. That’s a dog who haunts. You meet it at night, and it’ll frighten you. They haunt in the dark, and in moonlight. They don’t make any sound. As the moon shines, you can see from two things whether it’s a barries or a borries. The borries has a peculiar way of walking; he first moves both left legs at the same time, and then his right legs, again at the same time; he sways to and fro. You can also immediately notice it from his tail. It’s a very thick, rough tail, which is stuck straight out. Other dogs always have their tails at a bit of an angle, with a curve. But the most frightening is when it’s dark. Because he has eyes like sauce bowls, and fire flies from them. He always walks at lonely places, especially old strongholds. You mustn’t do anything, and not say a word; then he doesn’t have power over you.

(RvS)