The "Achterhoek", which can be literally translated into "Back-corner" is situated in the Dutch province of Gelderland (Gelders) near the German border, it is a rather unknown part of the Netherlands which is rich of legends, most of them are of Saxon origin.
There are some big cities in the Achterhoek like Zutphen, Doetinchem, and Winterswijk but most of it consists of farmland, forests, and small villages.
I have collected some interesting local legends and other information but unfortunately it is very difficult to find legends and historical data about heathenism in the Achterhoek since most of it is not written down, so if you know of any more legends or interesting facts please don't hesitate to send me an Email.
History of Zutphen:
The area where nowadays the city of Zutphen is located has been inhabited for over 2000 years, at a certain time a small town was founded on a sandhill in a swampy region between the two rivers IJssel and Berkel, this new town was eventually called Suytfenne ("South-bog").
In 882AD the town was attacked by the Vikings and completely destroyed, in 890 it was rebuilt and strengthened with a "ringwalburg" a circular walburg (See: fortresses), this ringwalburg consisted of a 6 meter (6.5 yard) high earth wall with wooden palisades and a double moat.
In the 11th century AD "Sutfen" (Zutphen) became a residence of the German emperors and in 1046AD the bisshop of Utrecht built a beautiful church in the city center which was (and still is) called the st. Walburgis church, this Gothic style church was built on the location of an older Romanic church, which on its turn had been built on a small wooden church.
This wooden church was built on a hill which makes it possible that there may have once been a heathen sanctuary on that site; heathen sanctuaries were often built on hills and the earliest (pre-Christian) records about Zutphen tell of a fortified hill city that dated from prehistoric times, in the 9th century AD the dukes of Hamaland built a wooden hof on the hill where now the st. Walburgis church stands, this may have been a heathen hof.
In the south of Zutphen is an area named after a hill that is called "Bronsbergen", which means something like "Bronze-hills"; this may have been derived from sons- (Sun's-), wons- (Wodan's-), or -dons (Donar's-) berg, north of the Bronsbergen is an area called "Helbergen", this may point to a hill dedicated to the goddess Hel/Hella.
The name of the nearby river IJssel is derived from "Isala", which was the ancient name of the river; it refers to the Salians, who were a Franconian tribe that lived to the west of the river, in ancient times the river Isala formed the border between the tribes of the Franconians and the Saxons, although the Saxons later probably expanded their territory beyond the river since the current dialects west of it are Saxon in origin.
The legend of the Hellhound of Zutphen:
Someone once told me a local legend (which has also been described by the poet Staring) about the church and a huge black dog, which makes it even more plausible that the site had a religious meaning in heathen times since most legends are Christianized versions of older ones, also, huge black dogs are common in Germanic folk tales where they were mostly depicted as messengers of death or misfortune.
I can't remember all of the details anymore because I was very young when I heard the story but I shall try to write down as much as I can remember:
During Lent (when Christians weren't allowed to eat) a monk was sitting in the Librije (the library of the st. Walburgis church) where he was reading a book.
It was cold and dark outside and the monk had lit a candle, because he wasn't allowed to eat he was feeling very hungry and he thought of a nice warm and juicy steak.
Suddenly he saw a black shadow beside his table, it scared the hell out of him and he jumped out of his chair; before his very own eyes stood an enormous black dog with fiery eyes and smoking breath, the hound grinned at the monk and suddenly a plate with a large stake appeared on the table.
Although the monk was afraid of the dog he was so hungry that he could not keep his eyes away from the stake, the dog sat down and looked at the monk.
The monk could no longer control himself and he sat down and ate the stake, after he finished eating he felt ashamed that the devilhound had succeeded in tempting him to break the rules of the church and he fell to his knees to ask his god for forgiveness, he heard a loud demonesque laugh and he suddenly noticed that the black dog had disappeared.
When the monk told his collegues about what had happened they did not believe his story at first, but then their eyes fell upon scorchmarks on the floor of the Librije; the hellhound had left his footprints on the stone floor of the church which could not be removed since they were burned into the stone and they would forever remind the monks of the legend of the Black Dog...
A better known version of the legend is this one: Jaromir the monk was reading in the Librije and a woman who did not know that Jaromir had promised his patron saint not to eat brought him a basket of food, Jaromir was very hungry, forgot about his promise, and ate the chicken, immediately after that the devil appeared in the form of a big black dog, he left his footprints in the floor, took Jaromir's keys, and locked him up in the Librije so he had to stay there all night long, the next morning the sexton came and freed Jaromir again.
Although this legend is obviously Christian it is probably based on an older legend which featured a black dog, it may also be possible that this story was made up to recreate an old heathen legend into a new Christian one, an interesting thing to mention is that the black dog's footprints can still be seen today by everyone who visits the Librije at the st. Walburgis church, the Librije is the oldest public library in the world and visitors are only allowed to enter it in small groups with a supervisor, the books are extremely valuable and are chained to the benches to avoid theft, there is also a machine that controls the humidity in the room to avoid the books from getting damaged, I am one of the lucky ones who has visited the librije and I checked for the footprints too, some researchers claim that they are nothing more than small dents that occured during the baking of the stones but I could clearly see that they were the footprints of a dog, they were very deep and you could even see the nails of the dogpaws, the footprints were also bigger than those of most average dogs, I would have loved to take a picture for this site but unfortunately that was not allowed.
Staring's poem about this legend can be found here.
The haunted farm between Zutphen and Brummen:
Along the road between Zutphen and Brummen stands an old Saxon-style farm with a big tree in front of it, this farm is locally known as "the haunted farm", the building has been deserted for over a century now.
According to local folklore the farm was inhabited by a farmer, his wife, and their young son.
The farmer's son fancied the service maid but his parents did not approve of her; the boy loved his new girlfriend very much and wanted to marry her, which caused his father to erupt in anger against him but he refused to leave her.
After the fight the son was so desperate that he hung himself on the big oak tree near the farm, this is said to have happened on January 1841.
The story does not end here; not soon after the boy's death the farm became haunted, the old farmer was harassed and pursued by the ghost of his son and eventually had to move to another farm, since that time nobody ever lived in the farm again because it is still said to be haunted.
The farm is still uninhabited today and a sidebranch of the tree is pointing towards the farm as a grim reminder of what happened...
The events that occured in the legend are said to have taken place in 1841AD which means that the story is not of heathen origin, however, it may be possible that the date and place of the legend have been added later to give the legend a historical background since both the farm and the tree date from around that period, therefor it is possible that we are dealing with a much older legend that was later changed.
Another interesting thing to mention is that the original name of the farm is Dijkzicht ("Dike-view"), but the local people still refer to the farm as "haunted farm" or "haunted house", though most of them don't know the legend behind it when asked.
The ruin of Nijenbeek:
Between Zutphen and Apeldoorn is a small village called Voorst, close to this village stands the ruin of castle Nijenbeek, and although castle Nijenbeek ("New-brook") has been built shortly after the Christianization it is still interesting enough to mention it on this page.
The castle was built in the 13th century AD on a small well-defendable island in the river IJssel, in the 14th century AD a power struggle broke out in Gelre (the modern province of Gelderland) between two families of knights; the Hekerens and the Bronkhorsten, the Hekerens were the supporters of Frederik van Hekeren, a peaceful noble who wanted to bring peace and prosperity to the province without any wars or adventures abroad, he was also supported by most of the cities in Gelre.
The Bronkhorsten were the supporters of Gijsbrecht van Bronkhorst, a wild and adventurous noble who was more concerned with foreign politics.
One of the nobles supporting the Heekerens was Reinald III, who later became the duke of Gelre, as you can imagine the Bronkhorsten were not happy with this and Reinald's brother Eduard (who sided with the Bronkhorsten) took his brother prisoner and was accepted as the new duke of Gelre.
Reinald III was imprisoned at castle Nijenbeek that was owned by his brother Eduard, although Eduard and Reinald were rivals Eduard took good care of the imprisoned Reinald and made sure that he got everything he wanted, actually Reinald had such a good life at Nijenbeek that he became very fat and spoiled, his new nickname became "de dikke hertog" (the fat duke) and he was so incredibly fat that he didn't even had to be guarded anymore because he couldn't get out of the castle exit anyway.
After the death of his brother Eduard, who got himself killed at the battle of Baeswiller in 1371, Reinald's former position of duke of Gelre was restored again, but when Reinald was released from his former prison at castle Nijenbeek he couldn't get out again because he was too fat to fit through the door, eventually the people had to break away the doorframes and some parts of the wall to get the fat duke out of the castle.
After he got out of the castle Reinald III was made duke of Gelre again but very soon after his release he died, which probably had something to do with his unhealthy lifestyle.
The original castle Nijenbeek used to be much bigger but nowadays there is only a tower of it left, the IJssel has also changed its course and the castle now stands much further from the river than it used to be, at the end of World War 2 (1945) the tower was used as a lookout post by the nazi's, who wanted to observe the Canadian troops that had liberated Zutphen and other areas on the eastbank of the IJssel, but the Canadians did not like being watched and used their artillery to get the nazi's out of the tower, unfortunately this also caused heavy damage to the tower.
Nowadays the tower is on the brink of collapse and visitors are not allowed to enter it, no effords have been made to repair the castle yet and it just stands there hidden between the trees as a relic of long forgotten glory, many people in the area don't even know it exists at all and are surprised to find out there is a castle there, only some lost tourists and a swarm of crows are still regularly visiting the tower.
Archeologists have also found an old Iron Age sword near the castle, and since swords were mainly used by rich people this may indicate that the area also fancied some older nobility than the ones who later built the castle there, I have also heard rumours about secret tunnels leading from the castle to a farm in northern Empe (a nearby village), but I don't think those legends are based on facts because I've visited the castle to take some pictures and the distance between the castle and Empe is too big to make any tunnels between them, unless you are very rich and don't mind digging for a few years...
The mysterious god of Warnsveld:
To the east of Zutphen is a lovely little village called Warnsveld, which is known for its beautiful mill but also hides a much older mystery which is unknown to even most of its inhabitants.
The municipal flag of Warnsveld shows a heathen suncross symbol and its heraldic symbol also shows heathen influences, its old Dutch description from 1853 says; "zijnde een schild van sinopel, beladen met eenen naakten, omgordden, gebaarden en gevleugelden links zienden afgod, in elke hand een slang houdende, alles van zilver, staande op een liggend rad van goud."
Translation: "being a shield of sinople (green colour), loaded with a naked, girded, bearded and winged left seeing (watching to the left) idol (heathen god), holding a snake in every hand, all of silver, standing on a lying wheel of gold."
The heraldic symbol itself dates from march 21, 1853, but is based on the idea that Warnsveld was named after a heathen god called "Warns" (Warns-field); this god was believed to be of either Saxon or Frisian origin, though the location supports a possible Saxon origin and since there is a good chance that Warns was the patron god of the Saxon tribe of the Warnians I think it is safe to assume we are dealing with a Saxon deity here.
The 19th century Dutch historian D. Buddingh believed that Warns may have been identical to Wodan though modern historians are still doubting the authenticity of Warns and believe he may be a later invention, the modern Dutch historian M. Gysseling believes that the name Warnsveld is derived from old Germanic "Warinas feldu" (the field of Warin), and there is also a possibility that the town is named after the tribe of the Warnians.
There is also a village in Friesland which is called Warns, in Austria is a Warnsdorf and in the Czechian Sudetenland is a village called Varnsdorf.
The Giant of Lochem:
It is said that the Lochemerberg (a hill near the city of Lochem) has been created by a Giant who collected some sand and piled it up into a hill, after that he took the rest of the sand he collected in his arms and walked to the city of Neede with the intention of creating another hill there, but halfway he got tired and rested near the city of Geesteren where he accidentally lost some of the sand; this created the Sprakelberg.
The White Women of Lochem:
Near Lochem and Zwiep is a village called Barchem, just outside that village lie the Lochemer berg and the Kalenberg, which are both around 50 meters high, between this two hills is a funnel-shaped pit which is called the "Wittewijvenkuil" (White Women pit), which is the center of the following legend:
Just outside Lochem in the village of Zwiep was the White Women pit, this pit was believed to be inhabited by three White Women; during the day they slept in the sand from which they could not be distinguished but during the night they awoke and floated around in the area.
In the neighbourhood lived two children who weren't afraid of the White Women; Herbert and his sister Aaltje, in the evening they always walked past the White Women pit and watched at the appearances in the mist, sometimes they even descended into the pit to play and pick flowers, the White Women felt threatened by them and the oldest of the three White Women often appeared to watch them, but when she heard the happy laughs of the children she always decided to tolerate their presence and left.
Near Herbert lived a girl called Johanna who warned him of the White Women and asked him not to go into the pit again, Herbert liked Johanna very much and he decided to heed her warning.
Over the years Herbert and Johanna grew into young adults and their love for eachother only became bigger, Johanna lived near Herbert with her father, who was called Scholte Lodink, and his mother in a farm that was situated at the foot of the hill.
Johanna's mother did not approve of Herbert because his parents were poor, so she invited Albrecht, who was one of the richest men of the Achterhoek, and hope that Johanna would marry him instead of Herbert.
But Johanna did not love Albrecht and she chose for Herbert, but Johanna's parents became angry and they told Herbert to stay away from their daughter.
Herbert was very sad about this and he took off on his horse, it was dark and he got lost, and without knowing it he was ascending the hill of the White Women; his mother had warned him never to go onto the hill after dark because the White Women did not want to be disturbed then, but he was only thinking about Johanna and forgot about that.
Suddenly he saw white appearances coming towards him from behind the trees; they lifted the horse and its rider and turned it around into the direction from where it came, when Herbert looked around him he suddenly noticed that he was standing at the edge of the White Women pit, and if the White Women would not have stopped him he would have fallen into it.
He quickly went home and the next day he asked his sister Aaltje to bake a cake, she told him that she would only do that if she could come with him to the pit, so they both went back to the White Women pit and left the cake on a plate near the pit to thank the White Women for saving Herbert's life; when Herbert returned to the pit the next day he saw that the plate was empty and that the White Women had accepted his offering.
In the meantime Johanna's parents were argueing; her mother wanted her to marry Albrecht because he was rich, but Johanna's father had accepted her choice and allowed her to marry Herbert, he then told his wife that bravery was more important than wealth and he came up with a plan; both men should hold a contest of which the winner was allowed to marry Johanna; both rivals had to race on horseback to the White Women pit at night, Herbert to the western edge, and Albrecht to the southern edge, there they had to throw a spit (an iron pin on which the scythe was sharpened) into the pit while saying the rime;"Witte Wieven wit, hier breng ik oe het spit" ("White Women white, here I bring you the spit"), the first one to return was allowed to marry Johanna.
Both boys accepted the challenge, though Herbert knew that he had no chance because Albrecht had a faster horse; they both rode off and Albrecht quickly lead, but halfway through the forest Albrecht became afraid; he threw his spit into the bushes and went back.
Herbert continued and he reached the White Women pit, he threw his spit into the pit and shouted;"Witte wieven wit, hier breng ik oe het spit!"; the rest of the White Women was disturbed and they came out of the pit screaming in anger, Herbert quickly turned his horse and rode off with the White Women in hot pursuit, one of them had caught the spit and held it in her hand, she was quickly coming closer and he could feel her hot breath in his neck, suddenly he saw light in the dark night; Johanna had lit a lamp to show him the way to her farm and she opened the doors to let him in; Herbert and his horse jumped through the opened doors and Johanna quickly closed it before the White Woman's nose.
The White Woman saw her prey escaping and angry she threw the spit at Herbert, but it hit the door and pierced into it.
Johanna's parents kept their word and when the spring came Herbert and Johanna married, after the marriage they returned to Johanna's farm and they found something on the ground; a plate similar to the one Herbert had used to offer the cake to the White Women and a spit, both were made of gold; despite the nightly disturbance the White Women favoured Herbert and Johanna and had shown this with a wedding gift...
There are several different versions of this legend, in some of them Herbert is called Albert and Albrecht is called Hendrik, but in all versions most of the storyline is the same.
The old farm of Herbert and Johanna has now disappeared, but the spit and a part of the door can still be seen today in the backery store of Zwiep.
The White Women of Montferland:
South of Doetinchem, near the German border, lies an area that is called Montferland, it is a rural area with farms, fields, and forests and the following legend is believed to have taken place there:
A farmer called Gert van Beek was sitting in a tavern called "Het Silveren Peert" (The Silver Horse) in Siddem where he was ordering beer after beer, at the end of the evening he was totally drunk and decided to leave, but the other people in the tavern adviced him to stay a little longer because this was the time when the White Women were roaming the forests; "Don't you know that the White Women are on the prowl at 12 oclock during full moon? just wait a little longer before you go!" the farmer laughed about this and said; "if I encounter any of them I will ask her for a dance!", and he went outside.
On the way back to his house in the village of Beek he took a shortcut through the forest and suddenly he saw strings of mist appearing between the trees, he could not see a thing and all around him was the grey shroud of the fog, he saw figures being formed in the mist and suddenly three White Women appeared in front of him of which one approached him.
Gert was still very drunk and impudently he asked her to dance with him; the White Woman grabbed him and started dancing, she continued through the entire night and would not stop, Gert desperately tried to free himself but he had no control over his body anymore and had to continue with the White Woman's death-dance, the sweat was pouring from his face and he begged the White Woman to stop, but she continued and made him dance like he had never done before.
The next morning Gert's body was found by some villagers after he had litterally danced himself to death.
The Wild Hunter:
There are some local legends in the Achterhoek that are undoubtly linked to the Wild Hunter myth:
At Terborg the people believed in "het Glujende peerd" ("the Shining horse"), which was a ghostlike appearance of a horse that could be seen but produced no sound.
In the Achterhoek it was also rumoured that every evening a dark figure with a fluttering cloak could be seen riding through the air, this person was by some believed to be Berend van Galen, who was once the bishop of Münster.
Another name for this figure was "Derk met de beer" ("Derk with the boar") he rode through the air at Christmas eve with his boar; this creates another possibility since the god Wodan only used his horse while the god Frey rode on a boar, this makes it possible that there were also stories about Frey as a "nightrider".
In Eibergen the people called him "het Hee-mannetje" ("the little Hey-man"), he was called like this because he always shouted "Hey-hey" to the people who saw him.
Alfen and White Women:
Alfen ("Elves") were probably very important in the Achterhoek which is reflected by the large amount of stories about them.
In later folklore the "Witte Wieven" or White Women are mentioned, who were nature spirits that were probably related to the Alfen, they were seen as evil witches though that is probably a later Christian adaptation; near the city of Laren is a "White Women pit" which is said to be inhabited by friendly witches.
In the city of Vorden the White Women were called "Völeken", and they were believed to come at night to turn furniture upside-down, they were told to inhabit hills and stones, which makes it even more possible that they may have been connected to Alfen (Alfar) or Landwights (Landvættir).
A local folktale in Vorden tells about an event that is believed to have happened in 1790; a man who was working near a hill was suddenly pulled into the hill by an unknown force and never returned; in ancient times the hill was believed to be inhabited by spirits or White Women.
In the city of Eefde there is a legend that tells of White Women to appear on Christmas eve every year after which they dance on the Wittewievenbult ("White Women hill"), which has proven to be an ancient gravehill; note that Chrismas eve coinsides with the Germanic Jól celebration (see: holidays).
Near the city of Hummelo are the Witte Kolk ("White Pool"), the Zwarte Kolk ("Black Pool"), and the Wrangebult ("Thorn-hedge-hill"), which are believed to be haunted, there is a legend that says that 12 White Women appear out of the water of the Witte Kolk at midnight after which they move to the nearby Wrangebult, in ancient times the Wrangebult was a heathen sacrificial hill which also explains the connection to White Women, a "wrange" was a plaited hedge of thorns which was sometimes created around a holy place.
From the two pools flows a small creek called the Weppel, which flows through the Hennendal, "henne" means "death" in Nether-Saxon dialect so literally translated Hennendal means; "Valley of the Dead"; a rather dismal name for such a beautiful place, it may be possible that it was originally a heathen holy place that was later given this name to keep the people away from it.
At the annual fair of Hummelo a procession of Bielemannen ("Axe-men") is held, some of this men carry fake beards, are dressed up in old military uniforms and carry axes, they lead the procession and remove obstacles along the way, nowadays they represent sappers from a Renaissance style army but that is a later influence, the Bielemannen are believed to be the remnant of a heathen procession for the god Thunar in which priests held fertility dances in his honour.
More information about White Women can be found here.