Folklore of the Low Countries

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Netherlandish Proverbs, by artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder 1559, with peasant scenes illustrating over 100 proverbs

Folklore of the Low Countries, often just referred to as Dutch folklore, includes the epics, legends, fairy tales and oral traditions of the people of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. Traditionally this folklore is written or spoken in Dutch.

Folk songs

The subject matter of the oldest Dutch folk songs (also called ballads, popular songs or romances) is very old and can go back to ancient fairy tales and legends. In fact, apart from ancient tales embedded in the 13th century Dutch folk songs, and some evidence of Celtic and Germanic mythology in the naming of days of the week and landmarks (see for example the 2nd century inscription to goddess Vagdavercustis), the folk tales of the ancient Dutch people were not written down in the first written literature of the 12th century, and thus lost to us.

One of the older folk tales to be in a song is Heer Halewijn (also known as Van Here Halewijn and in English The Song of Lord Halewijn), one of the oldest Dutch folk songs to survive, from the 13th century, and is about a prototype of a bluebeard. This song contains elements mythemes of Germanic legend, notably in "a magic song" within a song, that compares to the song of the Scandinavian Nix (strömkarlen), a male water spirit who played enchanted songs on the violin, luring women and children to drown.[1]

Other folk songs from the Netherlands with various origins include: The Snow-White Bird, Fivelgoer Christmas Carol, O Now this Glorious Eastertide, Who will go with me to Wieringen, What Time is It and A Peasant would his Neighbor See. Folk songs from Belgium in Dutch include: All in a Stable, Maying Song ("Arise my Love, Shake off this Dream") and In Holland Stands a House.[2]

Folklore from the Middle Ages

In folk tales

Some of the Pre-Christian Dutch mythology took less sacred forms in the Middle Ages folklore and fairy tales, for example tales of the witte wieven, elf and kabouter continued, combining Christian and fairy tale elements. The mythology of Wodan on the Wild Hunt sailing through the sky, is thought to have been one of the tales that changed into tales of Christian Sinterklaas traveling the sky.[original research?]

Dutch folk tales from the Middle Ages are strong on tales about flooded cities and the sea. Legends surround the sunken cities lost to epic floods in the Netherlands: From Saint Elisabeth's Flood of 1421, comes the legend of Kinderdijk that a baby and a cat were found floating in a cradle after the city flooded, the cat keeping the cradle from tipping over. They were the only survivors of the flood. The town of Kinderdijk is named for the place where the cradle came ashore.[3]

The Saeftinghe legend, says that once glorious city was flooded and ruined by sea waters due to the All Saints' flood, that was flooded in 1584, due to a mermaid being captured and mistreated, and mentions the bell tower still rings.[4] This is much like the story The Mermaid of Westenschouwen (Westenschouwen) which also concerns the mistreated mermaid, followed by a curse and flood.[3] In some flood legends, the church bells or clock bells of sunken cities still can be heard ringing underwater.

Sea folklore includes the legend of Sint Brandaen and later the legend of Lady of Stavoren about the ruined port city of Stavoren.

Dulle Griet, painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, circa 1562

The paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder show many other circulating folk tales, such as the legend of Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), 1562.

In first literature

The first written folklore of the Low Countries is not specifically derivative of French folklore. In this class are the romances of epic poetry of the Carolingians that usually are about Charlemagne ("Karel" in Dutch). Dutch folklore also concerned the Christian saints and British themes of King Arthur chivalry and quests:

Epic poetry

  • Karel ende Elegast (Dutch for Charlemagne and Elegast, or more simply Charles and Elegast) is an original Dutch poem that some scholars think was written end of the 12th century, otherwise in the 13th century. It is a Frankish romance of Charlemagne ("Karel") as an exemplary Christian king and his friend Elegast, whose name means "elf spirit" or "elf guest." Elegast has supernatural powers such as ability to talk to animals and may be an Elf. He lives in the forest as a thief. The two go out on an adventure and uncover and do away with Eggeric, as a traitor to Charlemagne.[5]
  • De Reis van Sint Brandaen (Dutch for The Voyage of Saint Brandan) is a sort of a Christianized Odyssey, written in the 12th century that describes the legend of Sint Brandaen, a monk from Galway, and his voyage around the world for nine years. Scholars believe the Dutch legend derived from a now lost middle High German text combined with Celtic elements from Ireland and combines Christian and fairy tale elements. The journey was begun as a punishment by an angel. The angel saw Brandaen did not believe the truth of a book on the miracles of creation and saw Brandaen throw it into the fire. The angel tells him that truth has been destroyed. On his journeys Brandaen encounters the wonders and horrors of the world, people in distant lands with swine heads, dog legs and wolf teeth carrying bows and arrows, and an enormous fish that encircles the ship by holding its tail in its mouth. The English poem Life of Saint Brandan is an English derivative.[6]

Tales of saints & miracles

Biographies of Christian saints and stories of Christian miracles were important genre in the Middle Ages. Original Dutch works of the genre are:

  • Het Leven van Sint Servaes (Dutch for The Life of Saint Servatius), was a poem written circa 1160-1170 by Hendrik van Veldeke, a Limbourg nobleman, is notably the first literature on record written in Dutch. This is an adaptation of the Latin, Vita et Miracula.[7]
  • Seven Manieren van Minnen (Dutch for Seven Ways of Love), by Beatrijs van Nazareth, nun, of the 13th century. This describes seven stages of love purification and transformation in Christian mysticism.[8]
  • Beatrijs (Dutch for Beatrice), written in the last quarter of the 13th century, possibly by Diederik van Assenede, is an original poem about the existing folklore of a nun who deserts her convent for the love of a man, and lives with him for seven years and has two children. When he deserts her, she becomes a prostitute to support her children. Then she learns that Mary (mother of Jesus) has been acting in her role at the convent and she can return without anyone knowing of her absence. This legend is the Dutch adaptation of the Latin, Dialogus Miraculorum of 1223 and Libri Octo Miraculorum of 1237.[9]

Arthurian romance

  • Walewein is a notably original poem written in Dutch by two authors Penninc and Vostaert[10] and is a story of Walewein (Dutch for "Gawain"), one of King Arthur's knights on a series of quests to find a magical chessboard for King Arthur.
  • Lancelot is a translation from British Arthurian romance.
  • Perceval is a translation from British Arthurian romance.
  • Graalqueeste (Dutch for Quest of the Grail) is a translation from British Arthurian romance.
  • Arthurs Dood (Dutch for Arthur's Death) is a translation from British Arthurian romance.

Animal fables & mock epics

  • Van den Vos Reinaerde (Dutch for About Reynard the Fox) is the Dutch version of the story of the Reynard the fox by Willem before 1200, that derives and expands from the French poem Roman de Renart. However, the first fragments of the tale were found written in Belgium. It is an anthropomorphic fable of a fox, trickster. The Dutch version is considered a masterpiece, it regards the animals' attempts to bring Renard to King Nobel's court, Reynard the fox outwits everyone in avoiding being hung on the gallows.[11] The animals in the Dutch version include:
    • Reinaerde or Reynaerde or Reynaert the fox
    • Bruun the Bear
    • Tybeert the Cat
    • Grimbeert the badger

Fairy tales

Grimm's Fairy Tales 19th century

The following tales collected by the Grimm brothers :

Lang Fairy Books 1890

Griffis Collection of 1918

The following fairy tales retold in English in 1918 were based on Dutch legends and collected in the book, Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks, 1918, compiled by William Elliot Griffis:

  • The Entangled Mermaid
  • The Boy Who Wanted More Cheese
  • The Princess with Twenty Petticoats
  • The Cat and the Cradle - This is a version of Kinderdijk
  • Prince Spin Head and Miss Snow White
  • The Boar with Golden Bristles
  • The Ice King and His Wonderful Grandchild
  • The Elves and Their Antics
  • The Kabouters and the Bells
  • The Woman with Three Hundred and Sixty-Six Children
  • The Oni on His Travels
  • The Legend of the Wooden Shoe
  • The Curly-Tailed Lion
  • Brabo and the Giant
  • The Farm that Ran Away and Came Back
  • Santa Klaas and Black Pete
  • The Goblins Turned to Stone
  • The Mouldy Penny
  • The Golden Helmet
  • When Wheat Worked Woe - This is a version of Lady of Stavoren, or The Most Precious Thing in the World
  • Why the Stork Loves Holland

Fairy tale notes: The Little Dutch Boy is commonly thought to be a Dutch legend or fairy tale, but is in fact a fictional story inside of a novel, written by an American author, and not known in the Netherlands as traditional folklore. See Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates.

Legendary people

Painting of Pier Gerlofs Donia, the 7.5 feet tall freedom fighter
  • Arumer Zwarte Hoop (The Arumer Black Gang), a select group of highly specialized and legendary warriors, led by Grutte Pier
  • Beatrijs - an errant nun alleged to be saved by Mary (mother of Jesus). See tales of saints & miracles.
  • Brandaen - a monk from Galway who takes a voyage around the world for 9 years (epic poetry).
  • Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) - the legendary mad woman
  • Duchess Marie of Brabant, Genevieve of Brabant
  • Finn (Frisian) - Frisian lord, son of Folcwald
  • Flying Dutchman - A pirate and his ghost ship that can never go home, but is doomed to sail "the seven seas" forever. Note this legend originated in England theater. According to some sources, the 17th century Dutch captain Bernard Fokke is the model for the captain.
  • Jan van Hunks - Alleged Dutch pirate whose soul was taken by the devil after beating the devil at pipe-smoking contest on Table Mountain, and Devil's Peak (Cape Town), South Africa. Whenever a cloud appears of Table Mountain it is said that van Hunks and the devil are at it again.
  • Ing (Ingwaz, Yngvi) - founder of the Ingaevones, son of Mannus
  • Istaev, founder of the Istvaeones, son of Mannus
  • Kobus van der Schlossen, a Robin Hood-like character
  • Little Father Bidou
  • Lady of Stavoren - a proud woman, sea legends
  • Dorus Rijkers, the legendary sailorman, lifeboat-captain and savior of over 500 people from drowning at sea
  • Lohengrin - the son of Parzival (Percival), in Arthurian legend.
  • Liudger - a missionary among the Frisians and Saxons
  • Mannus - ancestor of a number of Germanic tribes, son of Tuisto
  • Saint Martin of Tours
  • Pier Gerlofs Donia "Grutte Pier" - a Frisian pirate and freedom fighter (known for wielding a 2.15 meter sword, and able to behead several enemies at the same time), who was around 7.5 feet in tall.
  • Saint Radboud - bishop of Utrecht from 900 to 917, grandson of the last King of the Frisians.
  • Sinterklaas (Dutch for St. Nicholas)
  • Tuisto (Tuisco) - the mythical ancestor of all Germanic tribes.
  • Thyl Uylenspiegel - 1867 novel by Charles De Coster recounts the adventures of a Flemish prankster during the Reformation wars in the Netherlands.
  • Zwarte Piet (Dutch for Black Pete) - the assistant to Sinterklaas.
  • Walewein (Dutch for "Gawain") - a knight in Arthurian legend.

Legendary creatures

File:Brabo antwerp.jpg
Brabo and the giant's hand; sculpture in the Grote Markt, Antwerp
  • Antigonus - a giant from Brabo and the Giant[12]
  • Elegast (Dutch for "King of the Elves.") - See poem Karel ende Elegast. Elegast can put people to sleep magically, opens locks without keys, and has a magic herb that when he puts in his mouth allows him to talk to animals.
  • Boeman - the bogeyman of the Netherlands
  • Dwarfs - a short, stocky humanoid creature
  • Gnomes - dwarf-like beings who instruct the kabouters in smithing and construction. They design the first carillons (groups of bells) of the Netherlands - from The Kabouters and the Bells[12]
  • Goblins - or sooty elves, have both dwarf and goblin traits, from The Goblins Turned to Stone,[12]
  • Kabouter - (Dutch for gnome) short, strong workers. They build the first carillons (groups of bells) of the Netherlands - from The Kabouters and the Bells[12]
  • Klaas Vaak (Dutch version of the "Sandman")
  • The Mark - a night demon of Walloon areas of Belgium and Flander's borders.
  • Mara - from Scandinavian countries, a malignant female wraith who causes nightmares.
  • Moss Maidens - who can make leaves look like anything, from The Elves and Their Antics[12]
  • Nightmares - female horses who sit on people's bellies at night after they've eaten toasted cheese. They are female goblins in their true form. - from The Goblins Turned to Stone[12]
  • Puk (Dutch for puck)
  • Staalkaar, or Stall Elves who live in animal stalls[12]
  • Styf - an elf who invents starch, from The Elves and Their Antics[12]
  • Dwaallichten - from The Elves and Their Antics [12]
  • Witte Wieven (In a Dutch dialect it means "white women") - similar to völva, herbalists and wise women.

Mythological deities

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From ancient regional mythology, names of ancient gods and goddesses in this region come from Roman, Celtic and Germanic origins.

Legendary places

Other folklore

See also


  1. Meijer, page 35.
  2. These songs are collected with the melody score in Folk Songs of Europe edited by Karpeles.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Meder, Theo.
  4. Wikipedia:Saeftinghe legend
  5. Meijer 1971:7-8.
  6. Meijer 1971:9.
  7. Meijer 1971:4.
  8. Meijer 1971:16-17.
  9. Meijer 1971:20-21.
  10. Meijer 1971:11.
  11. Meijer 1971:3-4, 23-24.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks by William Elliot Griffis


  • Encyclopedia Mythica.
  • Griffis, William Elliot. Dutch Fairy Tales For Young Folks. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1918. (English). Available online by SurLaLane Fairy Tales. File retrieved 1-17-2007.
  • Karpeles, Maud, editor. Folk Songs of Europe. New York: Oak Publications, 1964.
  • Meder, Theo. 'Dutch folk narrative. Meertens Instituut, Amsterdam. File retrieved 3-11-2007.
  • Meijer, Reinder. Literature of the Low Countries: A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.