Myths and sagas
Hunting for ghosts and devils
Folk tales were seen as truths until the early twentieth century. Those beliefs are apparently quite persistent.
The genre also includes jokes, riddles and urban legends.
Groningen and Friesland both have an enormous number of folk tales.
Times change, and fairytales change with them. Everything is becoming friendlier and friendlier. There is not as much sex and there is less violence.
Sagas are a reflection of society. They hint at people’s feelings, fears and opinions.
The story about the organ thieves always takes place somewhere exotic. That perfectly plays into the fear of unknown places and people.
Reading time: 8 minutes (1,312 words)
In the old days, leaving the house must have been quite an endeavour in the Frisian and Groningen countryside. Sinister women dressed in black floated across the roads, bringing bad luck to anyone who encountered them. Flaming spirits returned to earth from hell and followed you home to scratch at your windows. Sometimes, you could even see the devil himself, wandering around in the form of a scary black dog.
For centuries, people told each other about sokkeraaiwiefkes (the floating women in black), fire spirits, and devil dogs. And they were doing this until quite recently, says professor by special appointment Theo Meder. ‘These stories were seen as truths until the early twentieth century. The Enlightenment had already taken place by that time, but these beliefs can apparently be tenacious.’
Theo Meder works at the Meertens Institute, which studies Dutch language and culture. In September 2015 he was made professor by special appointment at the RUG. His research focuses on folk tales. And there are quite a few of them. The well-known Disney fairytales have their origin in folk tales, as do legends about pious saints or crying Mary statues. But the genre also includes jokes, riddles, and urban legends.
Tales about specific locations are called sagas. They are often frightening, but not always. In Eenrum, for instance, there is the saga about a young woman named Aagt, who paid for a piece of land in a peculiar way.
Theo Meder tells stories the way they were meant to be told. His voice is deep, he knows how to build suspense and his timing is flawless. It is not hard to believe that he used to be really good at telling jokes – a genre he still greatly favours. ‘You shouldn’t just rattle off a joke, you should act it out.’
It is tempting to see his joke telling as the source of his lifelong love of stories. But Meder does not think that is true. His joining the Meertens Institute more than 20 years ago was a matter of coincidence rather than passion. ‘I had graduated, and they happened to have a vacancy.’ Meder applied, was hired, and was told to set up a database of folk tales: the Verhalenbank (Story database).
‘Ever since then, my speciality, as well as my interest, has only grown’, he admits. This is reflected in his CV (see box): he is senior researcher at the Meertens Institute, has published pieces on several different subjects and has headed up multiple research projects. One of his most recent project collaborations is the website SagenJager (Saga Hunter), an online route planner that traces all the sagas in the Netherlands. ‘Tours of ghosts, the devil, and everything in between’, Meder calls the project jokingly. ‘There are so many bicycle and walking tours that lead people past mills and farms, so we figured that was something we could do, but then about sagas.’
Part of the map at www.sagenjager.nl/kaart
The map shows why Meder’s choice of the RUG is not a coincidence: there is an enormous number of folk tales in the North. This is mainly thanks to Dam Jaarsma (1914-1991), a Frisian poet and pastor who collected more than fifteen thousand folk tales from the region where he was born. These continue to be part of the largest and most important collections at the Meertens Institute.
‘I really wanted to research those stories’, Meder says. ‘And the RUG is the only university that still studies the Frisian language and culture. Jurjen van der Kooi (former lecturer folklore and oral culture, ed.) already did a lot of research on the stories of the North. I would really like to continue that work.’
Collecting is one thing. Meder wants to do more in his research. ‘Looking for the reason behind things is really important to me. Why do people tell the stories they do and why do they tell them in a particular way?’
By examining the stories from this different angle, you can learn a lot about the people telling them. ‘They hint at the feelings, the fear, and the opinions of society.’ This can also be seen in the seemingly simple genre of jokes. ‘You know what’s been an increasingly common subject for jokes over the past few years? Ethnic differences. That’s because our society currently consists of so many different ethnic groups.’
An old Groningen tale tells us it used to be different. In Ezinge there lived a seamstress, Trijntje Soldaats, who told stories to her customers’ children as she worked. One of those stories is about a farmer who mistakes a dark-skinned man for the devil.
Times change, and fairytales change with the times, too. ‘They just keep getting nicer and nicer’, Meder summarises. ‘Not as much sex and less violence.’ In Disney’s version, for instance, the story of Sleeping Beauty ends with a cautious kiss. In the original story, however, the prince raped the princess, who then gave birth to two children, all while she was sleeping. And Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother did not live happily ever after, but were eaten by the wolf.
In 2016, these stories are too gruesome. Meder does not mind. ‘You can’t stop those kinds of developments, even if you want to. That’s the thing about stories: the person who tells them decides how they go. And if they think it should be told differently, then differently it shall be told. I don’t pass judgment on that. I’m just here on the sidelines to observe.’
Sagas, too, have undergone quite a bit of change. These days, they are better known as urban legends. No longer do they concern sokkeraaiwiefkes, but rather gangs of organ thieves who steal kidneys from unsuspecting tourists. Or bloody ghosts that appear behind you when you say ‘bloody Mary’ three times in front of a mirror.
Perhaps the biggest change is that instead of being spread through word of mouth, modern sagas mainly spread online. ‘What happens online is actually a lot like oral communication’, Meder explains. ‘The language is informal, interactions are superficial, and the identity of the storyteller may be unknown. It’s no wonder that so many urban legends circulate online.’
But would it not be a lot easier to check online what is true of these tall tales? Meder laughs: ‘Yes, but that doesn’t mean it actually happens. People believe what they want to believe, what fits their world view. The story about the organ thieves, for example, always takes place somewhere exotic. That perfectly plays into the fear of unknown places and people. Then the listener is justified in going: See, you can’t trust those foreigners. They don’t go: maybe I should check if that’s correct.’
And so we are wary of scary men who want to steal our kidneys, just as the Frisians and the Groningen citizens used to be afraid of the devil masquerading as a dog. We tell each other about how many spiders crawl into your unsuspecting mouth at night, just like the inhabitants of Leek used to tremble at the gruesome story of the Cave of the Shells at the Nienoord estate. Theo Meder tells this story in the video on the right.
Do not worry, it did not actually happen – we think.
A bird’s-eye view of Theo Meder
Theo Meder (Vlaardingen, 1960) studied Dutch language and culture, specialising in Middle Dutch literature. In 1994, he started working at the Meertens Institute for Dutch Language and Culture. There, he developed the Story database, which has been available online since 2004. He is an editor at the web journal Vertelcultuur and contributes to the website SagenJager.
Meder has published books and articles on all kinds of folk tales. He also conducted ethnological research into the storytelling culture of the Utrecht district of Lombok. Furthermore, he researched and described the stories of New Age groups. In 2008, Meder collaborated on Canon met de kleine c, a collection of Dutch canon stories and songs. Meder is also concerned with online storytelling culture on, for example, Twitter, and contributed to the development of TweetGenie.
Theo Meder is currently senior researcher at the Meertens Institute and professor by special appointment at the arts faculty at the RUG.