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!
I’ve given myself a black eye, all in the interest of art! We’d already written that our story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star, will appear in the Air & Nothingness Press anthology The Wild Hunt. This evening we had some fun making a trailer for it. As main images I used the photo of my own grandfather, and an old photo of a farm, up in the north of the Netherlands. I imagine the story set on a farm not unlike this one.
Having raided Angeline’s make-up bag (Max Factor! We’re going up in the world!)…
…I went a bit further with the eye-shadow than would be usual for the Gothic vibe. A piece of blue paper, with a hole in it, then served as blue screen matte.
And then it was time for the soundtrack, made in Garageband, mixing my own voice, the sounds of the Midwinter Horn and footage of baying dogs and galloping horses. Then I combined everything in iMovie. And there we are: the trailer for With One Eye, Bright As A Star! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.
The anthology can now be ordered via the Air And Nothingness Press website. It’s a limited edition, 158 pages perfect bound, with french flaps. A real ‘hebbeding’ as we call it in Dutch!
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
Stories of the Wild Hunt are mainly known in the Norse and Germanic countries, with a smattering in Great Britain. It’s when Wodan leads a noisy hunting party of the dead through the air, when the nights are longest and the days coldest. It’s supposed to be a harbinger of doom. Despite Christendom removing most pagan traditions, we can still find traces of the Wild Hunt, though Wodan has lost his place to figures like the pagan deity Herne the Hunter, or King Arthur, in England, and Hellequin in France.
In the Nether-Saxon area, the north-eastern quarter of the Netherlands, you’ll also find the Rider on the White Horse, who also comes as an omen of natural disasters. This Rider too is identified as Wodan or St. Nicolas, and can be seen as a budget version of the Wild Hunt.
Folklorist Eilina Huizinga-Onnekes collected the following stories:
1920, Ezinge “The evening before Sunterkloas [St. Nicholas] several people from Ezinge had seen Sunterkloas. He rode over the field on a white horse and he himself was completely in white. And he had been wearing a big hat. Wiebe was afraid of nothing; he’d seen him too and had found it strange. So he had walked towards him and had said: “Have you already seen Sunterkloas?” And what happened with him then, he wouldn’t tell afterwards. But never again would he ask something like that. He’d been cured of that. Sunterkloas is something completely different than some people imagine!“
1932, Ruigezand, close to Niehove “On a stead at Ruigezand there always were a lot of hauntings. At Midwinter a cart always flew by. The doors always flew open with a bang. The farmhands often nailed the barn doors shut, but with a bang they’d all fly open again.“
1915, Panser, between Zoutkamp and Vierhuizen “Well, you do know of the rider on the northern lane of Panser? On Old Year’s Night [New Year’s Eve] between twelve and one a horseman on a white horse rides up and down. Man with a high pointy hat and a rough cloak. He rages through the sky and once he flew over Geessie and her fellow. He had a big sword in his hand. Around that time there’s no-one about.“
These three stories centre around the Reitdiep river, and despite its dykes flooding must have been a genuine fear throughout the ages. Panser is the name of the farm where there used to be a stronghold of the same name, on a wierde, a man-made hill. It’s the place with the oldest signs of human habitation in the area; pot shards from the 6th century b.c. have been found there.
In her Groninger Volksverhalen, Huizinga-Onnekes gathers stories of another leader of the Wild Hunt. It is said in East-Friesland (Northern German) that on Old Year’s Night, King Redbad rides with his wildly galloping horses through the Westermars. The barn doors fly open, but also close by themselves. Redbad, who died in 719, was the last pagan king in Europe. He was King of Frisia, when it stretched along the Dutch and German north coast. He refused to be baptised, saying: “I’d rather be with my forefathers in hell than with the Christians in heaven!”
Huizinga-Onnekes’ contemporary K. ter Laan notes another remnant from pagan times. “A fiery wagon, pulled by four or six dogs, rides on the lane of the milking place of the erstwhile abbey of Rottum (once a pagan temple), where the rectory grounds are now.“
One of the earliest and most important histories of the Anglo-Saxons was TheAnglo-Saxon Chronicle. They had the same roots as the Germanic and Norse tribes and broadly shared their folklore. The following is said to have happened in 1127. “Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after 6th February many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild ride as near as they could tell.“
M.D. Teenstra, in his 1840 Volksverhalen en Legenden, in which he gathers the folklore of the northern regions. “Ever since the 24 September 1731’s infamous pyres of Faan, there walk from Niekerk to Lettelbert some rough black dogs, with burning eyes, in front of an iron cart, making a terrible shrieking and moaning noise.“
De Faan was where the overzealous headman De Mepsche burnt dozens of people accused of sodomy; even in my mother’s childhood it was said that on the evening of that day, the horizon was burning and columns of smoke and fire could be seen. Not too far away from there, in Zevenhuizen, close to Leek, one can encounter the wild hunter with his dogs in the peat grounds.
A footnote points towards Nicolas Westendorp, and his 1826 essay on Norse myths. Following these breadcrumbs leads to this gingerbread nugget from Germanic mythology. “It is told of Holla, that she sometimes treks through the land on a cart and gives it fertility; that she especially at midwinter (Christmas time), when passing through, rewards industrious spinsters yet punishes the lazy; often she gives prosperity and richness. In the Hessisch mountains lies a lake, the Hollenteisch, which is about 40 or 50 feet wide: women who climb in this well are made fertile by Holla: she gives from her well children to families, and hands out many flowers and cakes, which come from her own bountiful gardens. Sometimes she appears in the middle of the lake, in the shape of a beautiful white lady. She also rides at the head of a furious hunt, and in Thuringen she is accompanied in that by the loyal Ekkert with his white stave: then you hear the barking of dogs in the sky, the blowing of horns, and the roaring of wild animals, and everything becomes pitch dark. In her parade you many times saw recently deceased people bound on wheels, or in other very painful positions. Ekkert warns people to get out of the way.“