Dutch Folklore: Witte Wieven
Continuing on from last week’s article about King Kyrië and the Kabouters, we delve into Dutch folklore once again to take a look at the ghostly Witte Wieven. The Witte Wieven, sometimes known as Wittewijven, were said to be the spirits of wise women who, for some reason or another, cannot lay to rest.
Ghosts of the night
Witte Wieven are commonly thought to be wights, ghosts of witches or victims of a painful death and now haunt the earth looking for revenge. They have long terrorised the people of western Europe and are known as Weiße Frauen in Germany and Dames Blanches in France. In the Netherlands, they are mainly associated with Gelderland, Drenthe and Overijssel and are known in Groningen as Widde Juvvers.
They appear as nocturnal apparitions, characterised by their flowing white garments and veils. Few have seen their faces but witnesses often report ugly, old women with sharp teeth and claws. They can often be found around burial sites, haunting the old castle corridors, tombs or lurking in swamps and moorland. They are often associated with fog and it was thought that mist at a gravesite was the sign of a spirit appearing.
They are often seen as malicious creatures and are supposedly unnervingly adept at finding valuables, which they steal from homes. They have also been known to seduce and attack men as well as lure people to their deaths in swamps and steal children.
While the malicious nature of the Witte Wieven has endured in the minds of people all over Europe, they were also thought to be benevolent spirits as well. In Dutch Low Saxon dialects, wit or witte means wise or clever/witty. As such, Witte Wieven actually translates to wise women, and were, historically, thought to be the spirits of wise female herbalists or healers, who were highly revered by their communities and were honoured with a ceremonial burial upon their death.
The spirits of these wise women would inhabit their burial sites or tombs, which is probably the reason why they are frequently seen as malicious, or even as a sign of impending death. However, these spirits were known to often help people and needy townsfolk would bring offerings to their graves in order to invoke their help.
The Witte Wieven are also frequently equated with elves and other woodland spirits, due to their intelligence and their connection with herblore and healing as well as their secluded nature. They are even described as Alven in some localities, which is the Germanic word for "elf".
Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers’ Grimm, described the Witte Wieven as a Dutch variant of the Weiße Frauen, “The people of Friesland, Drenthe and the Netherlands have just as much to say on their witte wijven or juffers in hills and caverns…though here they get mixed up with elvish personages.”
The white women of Montferland
A classic story in Dutch folklore is the story of a poor old farmer named Gert van Beek. One evening, he was sitting in his favourite pub, Het Zilveren Peert, somewhere in the municipality of Montferland. After a night of heavy drinking, around midnight, the farmer was ready to return home.
As he got up to leave, a grizzled blacksmith stopped him. “Do not leave just yet farmer, it’s a full moon tonight and around now Witte Wieven are lurking in the forests,” he growled, “wait a little longer before you leave.” Van Beek turned to the blacksmith, and with a drunken arrogance, laughed in his face. “Bah, those ghostly wenches don’t scare me!” he retorted, “If I see them, I’ll dance with them all night long.” Then, with that, he staggered out of the door.
On the way back, Van Beek took a shortcut through the forest, the mist began to curl up between the trees. Three ghostly figures began to materialise from the mist and approached the farmer. The farmer watched as the forms of three women began to take shape and, still filled with drunk courage, stormed up to the apparitions and grabbed one by the arm. “Dance with me!” he shrieked, as he began to twirl the figure in his arms.
Gert’s glee soon turned to panic as the woman unexpectedly pulled him in tighter and began to spin the farmer around and around. The farmer frantically tried to pull away but he no longer had control of his body and was forced to dance all night long with the ghastly spirit. The next day, his body was found in the forest by the townsfolk. He had died from exhaustion after being forced to dance all night.
More Dutch folklore
I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about the white women and wise women of the Netherlands. They continue to capture people’s imagination today. They are still prevalent in certain modern communities, like in the village Eefde in Gelderland, where Witte Wieven still said to appear on Christmas Eve every year and dance on the Wittewievenbult. Three Witte Wieven are also said to still live in a pit, the Wittewijvenkuil, near the village of Barchem, also in Gelderland.
Join us next week for our next stroll down the vista of Dutch folklore, where we will learn about the devilish Bokkenrijders.