Dutch Folklore: The Bokkenrijders

Dutch Folklore: The Bokkenrijders

Well, here we are again, taking a look at another legendary creature from Dutch folklore. This time we are going to learn about the Bokkenrijders, the fierce demons who terrorised the Dutch and Belgian province of Limburg from atop their terrifying flying goats.

Quite unlike other creatures from Dutch folklore, the Bokkenrijders, or Buck riders in English, became a real threat to the citizens of the region as roving gangs of thieves and criminals adopted the moniker of Bokkenrijders to scare the inhabitants of Limburg.

The Devil’s goat riders

According to legend, the Bokkenrijders were demons that rode through the sky on winged goats that were given to them by the devil. Riding and worshipping goats have been associated with satanic practices for centuries and traditional folk stories tell of men who made a pact with the devil. These men became demons, who were gifted winged goats from the Devil, to carry out his commands.

The Bokkenrijders would fly through the sky, shrieking and chanting: “Over huis, over tuin, over staak, en dat tot Keulen in de wijnkelder!” This translates to “across houses, across gardens, across stakes, even across Cologne into the wine cellar!” Every year, the Bokkenrijders would return to the Devil in the Mookerheide forest and heathland south of Nijmegen.

The real Bokkenrijders

In the 18th century, small groups of thieves and criminals used to commit crimes in Limburg under the name Bokkenrijders. They were known for raiding peaceful communities and farms all over Limburg and other parts of the Netherlands and Germany.

Armed groups would overpower the farmers and other inhabitants, killing and torturing them to get to their money and valuables. Some groups were known to mask their own faces while some were known to burn their victims' faces, soles and private areas to encourage them to part with their treasures.

Taking the name Bokkenrijders was meant to frighten the poor residents of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, however, the name also connected these criminals with the occult. Some criminals even promoted this connection to scare residents into submitting to them.

An example can be found during the “trial of Wellen” in 1774, which is the first instance of the term Bokkenrijders being used publicly. During this trial, it was heard that one Johan van Muysen slipped a letter under the door of a farmer. In the letter, van Muysen claimed to be a member of the Bokkenrijders and threatened to burn down the farmer's house if he did not pay, he used the word “Satan” three times in the letter.

The trials of the Bokkenrijders

Due to the enduring stories of the Bokkenrijders making a pact with the devil, persecution of Bokkenrijders was ruthless and gruesome. Historians liken the persecution of Bokkenrijders to that of other “ungodly people” such as witches and heretics.

If a Bokkenrijder was thought to have undertaken a heretical oath, in which he had forsaken God, then they would not undergo a trial that is typically reserved for common people. They would often be tortured and forced to confess, leading to historians asserting that many of those convicted of being a Bokkenrijder, only confessed due to the horrific torture methods at the time.

Those who were overly superstitious and mentally or physically deformed were way more likely to be accused of having some connection to the occult and were often falsely convicted. From 1743 – 1794, there were seven periods of Bokkenrijder raids, and in this time 1.170 people were accused of being Bokkenrijders, with 468 being convicted.

Those who were convicted were brutally executed, either by cartwheel, quartering, strangulation, decapitation or hanging.

The continued legacy of the men who rode goats

In the 19th century, as Romanticism burst into the forefront of the literary world, a huge number of stories and writings on the Bokkenrijders began to appear. The literary movement was pioneered by the famous Pieter Ecrevisse, from Sittard. Now, over 1.300 titles have been written on the legendary Bokkenrijders, many which have endured to this day.

However, the strong connection between the Bokkenrijders and magic and the occult has led to these tales portraying less realistic and more fantastical versions of these creatures. Their reputation has even grown to resemble that of Robin Hood and his Merry Men from England, in some places. It is these tales that have become cemented in European folklore.

The legacy of the Bokkenrijders continues to endure in modern culture. In Valkenburg, in the Netherlands, there is bokkenweken every October. During this time, several activities are put on such as a goat market, and the Witch Kitchen, an underground quarry that was said to be the base of a Bokkenrijder gang in the 18th century. You can also find the goat rider festival in Klimmen.

More Dutch folklore

So, there you have the story of the fearsome Bokkenrijders. There are plenty of more mythical figures and interesting creatures to keep writing about and plenty to learn from them. Is there a certain part, person or creature from Dutch folklore that you would like me to cover next? Let me know in the comments below!

William Nehra


William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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