Mythology of the Low Countries
The folklore of the
Low Countries( The Netherlands, Belgiumand Luxembourg[Meijer, 1971.] ) has its roots in the mythologies of pre-Christian Gaulish (Gallo-Roman) and Germanic cultures, predating the region's Christianization by the Franksduring the 6th century.
In the time of the Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages, the Low Countries resident peoples included:
Germanic tribesnorth of the Rhine River[per Tacitus and Caesar (1st Century), and Willibrord (658 – 739).] ( Low Franconians, Frisians, Tubanti, Canninefates, Batavians), as well as the decidedly more Celtic and Gallo-Roman Gaulish Belgae tribes of Gallia Belgicasouth of the Rhine. [Celtic was noted by Tacitus and Caesar in 1st Century; both Celtic and Gallo-Roman deities noted by Saint Eligius (588 to 660).] Old Dutchmythology can also mean the myths told in Old Dutchlanguage specifically, however many of the myths in this language are ancient and part of larger movements across Europe, such as Roman mythologythat spread through the Roman Empire, and Continental Germanic mythology.
Pre-Christian traditions of veneration of trees (particularly the
oak, see Donar's oak), springs and woods native to the Low Countries have survived in Christianized guise into the Middle Ages.
Sources for the reconstruction of such pre-Christian traditions include the accounts of the
Anglo-Saxon missionariesto the region, medieval and modern folklore and legend, and local toponymy.
From ancient regional mythology, most names of ancient gods and goddesses in this region come from Germanic origins, particularly in the North. Many of the deities are the same as
West Germanic deities, especially in the north: Wodan is Dutch for Woden/ Odin, the god of war and leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was retold in Dutch with Wodan leading under different guises: "Gait with his dogs; Derk with his dogs; Derk with his boar; the glowing horse; Henske with his dogs."). [Bissette, Elizabeth. [http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art48065.asp Ghost Riders in the Sky. 2007] ] Donar is Dutch for Thorthe god of thunder.
In Dutch the
days of the weekare named for Germanic gods. Note the following days were named through Roman influence, because the Romans found them to be (roughly) equivalent to their Roman deities: [Reginheim, "Donar (Thor) in Dutch Folklore", 2002.]
# dinsdag (Tuesday) named after
Tyr- compared to "dies Martis" (Mars day)
# woensdag (Wednesday) after
Wodan- compared to "dies Mercurii" (Mercury day)
# donderdag (Thursday) is named after
Donar- compared to "dies Jovis" (Jupiter day)
# vrijdag (Friday) after Frîja - compared to "dies Veneriis" (Venus day).
However other ancient deities are
Druidic, Celtic and Gallo-Roman in nature, particularly in the south and throughout Flanders: Erecurathe goddess of the earth, Góntia or Ghent (in Belgium) the moon goddess, Rosmerta, goddess of fertility, and the deities mentioned by Saint Eligius in Flanders (Jupiter, Neptune, Orcus, Diana, and Minerva).
Finally some deities were regional or specific to one clan:
Arduinnawas the Celtic goddess of the Ardennesforest. Nehalenniawas a goddess of travellers in Zeeland, where over 160 stone votives depicting her image were located in the sea. [Lendering, 2006.] Vagdavercustiswas an ancient goddess of the Bataviansmentioned on an altar near Cologne. Tanfanais another more mysterious goddess recorded in the 1st century AD.
The Dutch words "
witte wieven" and "wittewijven" in Dutch dialects means "women of wits" (wise women), although it sounds the same and often translated as "white women". The witte wieven were similar to völva, herbalists and wise women in life; in myth they lived on as spirits or elves. [Reginheim "Witte wieven", 2007.]
Nature spirits: The following beings may have originated as deities or supernatural beings in mythology, and later recharacterized as nature spirits during the Middle Ages; The Dutch like other Germanic people believed in elves, the Dutch words for them are "elfen, elven," and "alven". The moss maidens, who appear in Old Dutch and Southern Germanic folklore were known as tree spirits or wood elves, often chased in the Dutch version of the
Wild Hunt. The Kabouterwas the Dutch name for the kobold( gnome), a household spirit and earth spirit who usually lived underground.
The first epic heroes, kings and leaders of The Low Countries, considered mythological, in the sense of supernatural and foundational, include:
Tuisto(Tuisco) - the mythical ancestor of all Germanic tribes.
Mannus- ancestor of a number of Germanic tribes, son of Tuisto.
*** Ing (Ingwaz, Yngvi) - founder of the
Ingaevonestribe, son of Mannus.
Istaev- founder of the Istvaeonestribe, son of Mannus.
Redbad, King of the Frisians
Folcwald- hero of Frisian tribes.
Finn (Frisian)- hero of Frisian tribes, Frisian lord, son of Folcwald.
Objects considered magical or sacred in the Low Countries (7th century) included:
Oaktrees, springs and wooded groves had sacred and medicinal powers. Corn dollies("") were thought to hold the spirit of the corn in harvest rituals. Amulets and charms were worn on the head or the arms ("") for protection and veneration of the gods and goddesses.
Stone age tool shards were held sacred, thought to be Donar's lightning.
After the influence of Christian missionaries, the original mythologies were lessened in power, and for the most part adapted into folklore and legends, often made . The witte wieven for example became ghosts haunting sacred sites. However sacred beliefs and practices continued, often incorporated with Christianity. In a good example, the 12th century poem from Holland "
Karel ende Elegast" ("Charlemagne and elf guest"), an elven being is described as the hero who befriends and helps the Christian king Charlemagne in the forest. The Bishop of UtrechtArnold II van Hoorn, 1372-1375, noted the Flemish people still believed in wearing amulets and charms ("phylacteries"); he defined them as amulets worn on the head or arms, sometimes made out of books or scripture. In the Hieronymous Boschpainting, "Cure of Folly", 1475-1480, the woman balancing a book on her head is thought to be a satire of the people wearing phylacteries. [Skemer 2006:24.]
The written biographies of the Christian missionaries to the Netherlands, sermonizing against pre-Christian beliefs, are coincidentally some of the earliest written accounts of Dutch myths. The missionary texts written by the incoming Christian missionaries in the 7th century and 8th century recorded details of the pre-Christian myths of the native culture, although the missionaries showed religious hostility to them as
paganbeliefs. The main missionaries of the Netherlands were Willibrord, Bonifatiusand Saint Eligius.
Willibrord(658 – 739), appointed Bishop of Utrecht, came to the Netherlands in 690, and was the first Anglo-Saxon missionary to preach Christianity there. The Christian Frankshad just reoccupied and taken control of the lands from the Frisiantribes. The "vita" of Willibrord records he went on a missionary journey to an island called Fositesland(most think this was Helgolandoccupied by ethnic Frisians), between Frieslandand Denmark. Willibrord found it had sanctuaries and shrines dedicated to the Skandanavian gods Fosite, son of Balderand Nanna. He found the land was extremely sacredto the native people. A sacred well existed, and people drank its spring water only in silence. Willibrord slew the sacred cattle he found there, and baptized three people in the well within a few days of arriving.
Willibrord took other mission trips on the Dutch mainland where he witnessed that the people considered clearings in woods, springs and wells sacred to their mythology and religion. Willibrord tried to erase their pagan shrines and landmarks. He built a church on a sacred
heathenopening in the forest, destroyed a sacred forest in Heilooand renamed heathen wells as Christian wells. Many wells were renamed in his name.
In 714, the Frisian King Radboud drove Willibrord and his priests out of the area. Willibrord returned about 719 after the Frankish troops had taken recontol of the area and the King Radbooud had died. Willibrord continued to dismantle pre-Christian sanctuaries.Reginheim, 2002.]
Bonifatius (672–753), also known as Boniface, was the next missionary among the Frisians and Saxons. He arrived on a missionary trip to the Netherlands in 716, specifically going to
Dorestad, modern-day Wijk bij Duurstede. When he arrived, Bonfatius found that the Frisians had restored and rebuilt their "fana delubrorum", the heathen temples after Willibrord had been driven out. King Radboud allowed Bonifatius to spread Christian messages but he found the natives had a pantheon of gods and were not that impressed with Christianity. He left the same year.
In 719 Rome appointed Bonifatius to convert "the savage people of Germania". Bonifatius joined Willibrord in Utrecht to receive a three-year missionary training, then in 721 travelled east of the Netherlands into
Hesse, Germany.Bonifatius undertook a final preaching mission in Friesland in June 753 when he was attacked and killed by a group of Frisianswith unknown (legend says resentful) intentions.
One of the best glimpses of late
Druidic practices in the Flandersregion comes from the "Vita Eligii" (Life of Saint Eligius) (588 to 660) (written by Saint Ouen). Eligius was the Christian missionary to the people of the Low Countriesin the 7th century. Ouen drew together the familiar admonitions of Eligius to the people of Flanders. Eligius in his sermons denounced "pagan customs" that the people followed. In particular, he denounced many Roman deities and Druidic mythological beliefs and objects:
"I denounce and contest, that you shall observe no sacrilegious pagan customs. For no cause or infirmity should you consult magicians, diviners, sorcerers or incantators. ..Do not observe
auguries ... No influence attaches to the first work of the day or the [phase of the] moon. ... [Do not] make [a type of corn dolly] , little deer or iotticosor set tables [for the house-elf] at night or exchange New Yeargifts or supply superfluous drinks [a Yule midsummercustom] ...No Christian. .. performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. No Christian should presume to invoke the name of a demon, not Neptune or Orcus or Diana or Minervaor Geniscus... No one should observe Jove's day in idleness. ... No Christian should make or render any devotion to the gods of the trivium, where three roads meet, to the or the rocks, or springs or groves or corners. None should presume to hang any from the neck of man nor beast. ..None should presume to make lustrations or incantations with herbs, or to pass cattle through a hollow tree or ditch ... No woman should presume to hang amber from her neck or call upon Minervaor other ill-starred beings in their weaving or dyeing. .. None should call the sun or moon lord or swear by them. .. No one should tell fate or fortune or horoscopes by them as those do who believe that a person must be what he was born to be." [McNamara's translation of the "Vita Eligii".]
Procopiusin the 540s records a belief and/or funerary rite observed at the mouths of the Rhine involving the passage of the dead to the island of Brittia(Great Britain).
William Elliot Griffiswrote down and translated Dutch folk tales, and published in the book, "Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks". Among them the story of "The Legend of the Wooden Shoe" clearly begins with fragments of Druidic mythology in the ancient Netherlands retold for children:
"In years long gone, too many for the almanac to tell of, or for clocks and watches to measure, millions of good fairies came down from the sun and went into the earth. There, they changed themselves into roots and leaves, and became trees. There were many kinds of these, as they covered the earth, but the
pineand birch, ash and oak, were the chief ones that made Holland. The fairies that lived in the trees bore the name of Moss Maidens, or Tree 'Trintjes,' which is the Dutch pet name for Kate, or Katharine...."Griffis, 1918 in [http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/books/dutch/griffis/woodenshoe.html Legend of the Wooden Shoe] .]
The story outlines the following traditional beliefs in Holland: Wodan (Mentioned here as "God of Sun") is the deity the Dutch shared with other Germanic people, Dutch name for
Odin. Wednesday is named after him; Hollandis from the phrase "Holt Land" which means "Land of Many Trees". The tale says the land was once covered with forests and people lived in the trees for a "thousand years" until they became an agricultural people. In fact, the trees kept the land firm otherwise it would melt or disappear under water and floods. "Eyck" is ancient Dutch word for oakthat has become a popular Dutch surname. There is notable ambiguity in the tale if the "Moss Maiden" and "Trintje" were tree fairies, or a "wood elf" and "tree elf", respectively. As elves, they communicate the trees' promise to humans to "stand upside down" for the Dutch people. The oak trees in particular were the mythical life giving and medicinal tree and had many mythical purposes:
"Under its branches, near the trunk, people laid their sick, hoping for help from the gods. Beneath the oak boughs. ..wives joined hand in hand around its girth, hoping to have beautiful children. Up among its leafy branches the new babies lay, before they were found in the cradle by the other children. To make a young child grow up to be strong and healthy, mothers drew them through a split sapling or young tree. Even more wonderful, as medicine for the country itself, the oak had power to heal. The new land sometimes suffered from disease called the val [or fall] . When sick with the val, the ground sunk. Then people, houses, churches, barns and cattle all went down, out of sight, and were lost forever, in a flood of water."
In this legend, the
Kabouterand the elves show mankind how to turn the trees into piles to drive into them upside down into the ground and thus to make the land firm to build on, later how to make wooden shoes. Note that historically, Dutch land was low and prone to flooding, hence the land would sometimes flood and wipe out towns and villages, and the flooding was worse when forests were cut down to make way for agricultural and pastoral lands.
Landmarks and toponymy
Many regional legends exist in the Low Countries about the origins of natural landmarks such as hills, bodies of water, springs, wells, forests and the sea, that attribute creation to the ancient gods. Other legends tell where different witte wieven lived on as spirits in the Middle Ages, which are probably recharacterized stories of sacred sites. Many nice examples were collected in the book "Veluwsche Sagen" by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (1877-1911). The "Veluwsche Sagen" was a historically researched collection of Dutch "sagas" from the legends and folk almanacs in the province of
"The creation of the Uddeler- and
Bleeke Lake(s)": This myth concerns a battle that allegedly took place between Donar the God of Thunder with the winter giants and the "Midgaardsnake" (a giant snake monster) who strategically align against him. The giants throw hail down, while the snake climbs into a tall oak tree and blows poison into the air. Donar attacks, riding through the air on "his billy-goat wagon", the sky blazes and the earth trembles because of his "never missing thunderhammer." Donar strikes the snake on his head with such force on the head that not only was the monster crushed, the mighty thunderhammer went seven miles deep into the earth. The snake dies. However in the attack the snake's poison scorches and stuns Donar. Donar crashes down, with his "steerless goats" and wagon onto the "Donderberg" (meaning "Donar's hill") in Dieren. Then the earth sank into the sea, the seagod blew a horn and a big black ship came to collect Donar's body. When the floodwaters receded, two lakes mark the spot that are "as deep as the world, the Uddelermeeror "Lake of Uddel" ( Uttiloch), and the Godenmeer(God's lake)..." Later the legend continues that Thor's hammer surfaced from the depths. The grave of Migdaardsnake became overgrown with the forest nearby, until in 1222a bright flame shot out of the pool and the ghost of the snake wriggled up and fled north. The forest was burned and a moor near the lake remains where the forest once was. [Perné, "The Veluwsche Sagen - Saga 2", as translated by Reginheim.]
Perné notes that Donar was worshipped at the Godenmeer (God's lake), although the translator thinks that the lake Godenmeer may be a Christian version of Wodenmeer, a lake originally dedicated to Wodan. [Reginheim, "The Veluwsche Sagen", 2002.]
An ancient stone altar dating from around the 2d century CE found at
Cologne(Köln), Germany is dedicated to the goddess " Vagdavercustis". Vagdavercustis was most likely a native Germanic or Celtic goddess, who may have had a link with trees or woods. [Reginheim, "Forgotten Gods". 2003] There is some evidence that Vagdavercustis was worshipped by the Bataviansbetween present-day Netherlandsand Cologne. [http://www.spinfo.uni-koeln.de/lehre/HKIV-Arbeiten/Brandt-Ohrmann-Schmitt/einheimisch/Vagdavercustis.html Religiöse Kulte im römischen Köln: Vagdavercustis] ]
Another ancient stone altar has also been found in
Ubbergen, on the Hengstberg (Stallion-hill). It has the following inscription: "Mercurius Friausius (or Eriasus)." Mercurius is Latin for the Roman god Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Wodan. "Friausius" is suggested to refer to his wife Frigg. [Reginheim, "Map of Heathen Sanctuaries", 2002]
In the now flooded sites of
Domburgand Colijnsplaat, on the East Scheldte Estuary, there are the remains of temples each dedicated to a deity Nehalennia. Over 160 carved stone votives with her image have been dredged up at those sites and several inscriptions in Latin thank her for safe passage on the seas. [Green, Miranda (1998). "Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London", UK: Routledge, 1998. p 200-201.]
Empelthere is the remains of a temple to "Hercules Magusanus". This was the Roman's Latin name for the supreme god of the Batavians, Donar. Stone votives and broken weapons as symbolic offerings are at the location. ["Empel, The sanctuary of Magusanus..." [http://www.livius.org/ga-gh/germania/empel.html] . File retrieved 10-02-07.]
List of toponyms
Holland: This place name derives from the words "Holt Land" which means "Land of Many Trees", "Forest Land." According to the tradition ("The Legend of the Wooden Shoe"), the trees were filled with good spirits, and kept the land firm otherwise it would melt or disappear under water and floods.
Eyck names: The popular Dutch names, "Eyck" and "Van Eyck", mean "oak" and "from the oak", respectively. Oak trees were venerated in Druidic religion and mythology.
Many other place names in Netherlands have ancient mythological meanings, some named after Pre-Christian deities or reflecting other myths of the ancient people:Reginheim, "Map of Heathen Sanctuaries," "Heathen Sanctuaries" and "Heathen History of Achterhoek": 2002.]
* Donderbergen - translates as "Thunder hills", once dedicated to Donar (located in
Elst- name is derivative of the word "Heliste", which means sanctuary.
* Godenmeer - translates "God's lake" or "Woden's lake" (see legend of the Uddelermeer, "Uddeler- and Bleeke Lake")
* Godsberg/Godensbergen - translates "God's hill"/"Gods' hills", once dedicated to Wodan (hills located in
* Helsbergen - translates "Hel's hills", once dedicated to Hel (in
* Heilige Berg - translates "Holy Hill" (in
* Hemelse bergen - translates "Heavenly hills", once dedicated to Heimdal (in
Arnhem, Nunspeet, Oosterbeek).
* Hennendal - translates "Valley of the Dead" (near
* Manebergen - translates "Moon hills", once a sacrificial place for the Moon.
* Materberg - translates "mother-goddess hills".
* Paasbergen - translates "Easter hills", once dedicated to spring,
Ostara(hills with this name located in Arnhem, Ede, Ermelo, Lochem, Lunteren, Terborg, and Wisch).
Nijmegen- derivative of "Novio Magusanus". Magusanuswas the Roman name of Donar. Nijmegen was the heart of the Batavian cult of the god Donar. Nihjmegen had two temples dedicated to Donar
* Poppestien - translates "baby stone" is a big flat stone. According to legend, it delivered babies (in
* Willibrordsdobbe - the name of a natural well on the island, named after Willibrord, but seen by the locals as a holy well. Note according to history, Willibrord renamed the sacred pagan wells in his own name. (one the island of
* Wittewievenbult - translates "Wise Women hill". Local legend holds that some witte wieven appear on Christmas eve every year and dance on this hill (near the village of
* Wittewijvenkuil - translates "Wise Woman Pitt", is a pit between two hills near the village. Local legend holds that three witte wieven lived there (near the village of
* Wodansbergen - translates "Wodan's hills", once dedicated to Wodan.
Woensdrecht- town named after Wodan
* Woezik - translates "Wodan's oak". Several Wodans-oaks were known (in
* Wrangebult - translates "Thorn-hedge-hill". A "wrange" was a plaited hedge of thorns which was sometimes created around a holy place. Local legend holds it was a heathen sacrificial hill (in
* Zonnebergen - translates "Sun hills", once a sacrificial place for the Sun (hills with this name located in
Gorssel, Oosterbeek, Vorden, Wageningen).
Salian Frankish Mythology
* [http://www.northvegr.org/lore/germanic/e.php Vita Eligii (The Life of St. Eligius)] , in English - [http://home.scarlet.be/orthodoxe/textes/eligius.html full version]
* Encyclopedia Mythica.
* Griffis, William Elliot. "Dutch Fairy Tales For Young Folks." New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1918. (English). Available online by [http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/books/dutch/griffis.html SurLaLane Fairy Tales] . File retrieved 2-24-2007.
* Lendering, Jona. [http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nehalennia/nehalennia.html "Nehalennia", July 2006] . File retrieved 9-21-2007.
* McNamara, Jo Ann, translator. "Vita Eligii (The Life of St. Eligius)", in English. Available online by [http://www.northvegr.org/lore/germanic/e.php Northvegr Foundation] , copyright 2005. File retrieved 2-24-2007.
* Meijer, Reinder. "Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium." New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.
* Magusanus, Joris. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/dutchlegendsdonar.html Donar (Thor) in Dutch folklore.] " English translation by Ansuharijaz. Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 06-02-2007.
*Magusanus,Joris. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/dutchlegendswilliboni.html Willibrord and Bonifatius] ", noting the primary sources were the "Vita Willibrordi" by Alcuin, and "Vita Bonifatii" by Willibrord. English translation by Ansuharijaz. Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 2-24-2007.
*Grimsma, Boppo. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/dutchlegendsfriesland.html Dutch Legends Friesland: Heathen Sanctuaries.] " English translation by Ansuharijaz. Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 2-24-2007.
*Ansuharijaz. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/dutchlegendsachterhoek.html Heathen History of the Achterhoek.] " Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 2-24-2007.
*Magusanus,Joris. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/dutchlegendsveluwe.html Map of Heathen Sanctuaries" and "Veluwsche Sagen".] " English translation by Ansuharijaz. Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 2-24-2007.
*Ansuharijaz. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/forgottengods.html Forgotten Gods.] " Online: Reginheim, 2003. Files retrieved 2-24-2007.
*Ansuharijaz. " [http://www.geocities.com/reginheim/wittewieven.html Witte wieven.] " English translation by Ansuharijaz. Online: Reginheim, 2002. File retrieved 03-08-2007.
* Skemer, Don C. "Binding Words Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages". PA: Penn State Press, 2006. pp. 24, 135-136. ISBN 0271027223.
* Thistelton-Dyer, T.F. [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10118/10118-8.txt The Folk-lore of Plants, 1889] . Available online by Project Gutenberg. (moss people) File retrieved 3-05-07.
*Bos, J. M., "Archeologie van Friesland", Stichting Matrijs, Utrecht, 1995
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*Derolez, R.L.M., "De Godsdienst der Germanen", Roermond, 1959
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*Halbertsma, H., "Frieslands Oudheid", Stichting Matrijs, Utrecht, 2000
*Laan, K. ter: "Folkloristisch woordenboek van Nederland en Vlaams België", 1949, Den Haag: G.B. van Goor zonen's uitgeversmij N.V.
*Schuyf, J., H"eidens Nederland, Zichtbare overblijfselen van een niet-christelijk verleden", Stichting Matrijs, Utrecht, 1995
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