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 the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. 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

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:

Arthurian romance

Animal fables & mock epics

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:

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

Legendary creatures

Brabo and the giant's hand; sculpture in the Grote Markt, Antwerp

Mythological deities

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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks by William Elliot Griffis