The White Women: the Dutch Legend of the Witte Wieven
"Near the mounds around the heath you can find them. During the sultry nights of spring they roam around and dance across the heath. Near the burial mounds, where they live and hide their money and treasures. They're rich - very rich. They know exactly where the money lies hidden in the woods and bogs. Yes, near the swamp, they're often there.
Be careful when you pass and don't look back too often, even if you do hear a rustling, even if it does sing around you. It'll be the white women, out to dance with you, to take you into the woods and hollows and below the rocks and trees. Don't call on them; they'll come to fetch you. But they're also good and will help you; but only when you believe in them, don't fear them and fulfil your promises to them.
In the mists of autumn you find them; wrapped in their veils of fog. They float around the heath, between light and dark, when you can only just make out the shapes. When the moon is bright they pass in long processions. High the veils wave and swish through the air; they seem to cover the heath like fine mists. Over the ditches and streams they rise and fall: now in tight rows, then spread out over a large space. Have you never heard the soft singing, which moves through every leaf, which glides past the bushes and dies away in the woods like the sound of wondrous music; impossible to follow and barely distinguishable from the rustling of the wind? They are always and everywhere the white women, who with their long clothes brush past everything they meet on their way, with soft fine sounds.
Has no one told you about the poor lad, driven away everywhere and who, in his embarrassment, called on the white women for help? Don't you know they took pity on him and gave him gold, two shoes full of it? Have you never seen the gold glisten in fine, small grains through the waves of the little brook, when you looked over the railing of the little old bridge at twilight and a last sunbeam glided across the water? There, deep down on the yellow sand, there they lay, the small, small grains, which glistened in the last light of the sun. They were lying so deep, much deeper than you would've thought the brook would be; and you couldn't grab them because when you bent down, deep down, they would be gone. The White Women, who lured you, would drag them down again, into the deep maelstrom, where no ground was to be seen and where you would never get out once you were in.
Don't you know about the farmer who didn't keep his word and gave stones to the White Women instead of the promised banquet? Haven't you heard that the White Women came for him, when he was on his way home late in the evening and was found the following morning, nearly dead in the woods close to where the White Women danced? You have to believe in them. Those who don't believe will never see them."
J.H. Bergmans-Beins: Drentsche volksoverleveringen. Assen, 1933, translated by Eva Weggelaar.
An Introduction to the Witte Wieven
In the Netherlands, the Witte Wieven, White Women, are described both as the spirits of wise women, similar to the Northern völva, and as fairy-like beings, dressed in veils of fog and hidden within it. While some believe the White Women originated from the memory of pagan wise women, others think the legends stem from the Germanic belief in disen, land wights, and elves.
Witte Wieven in modern Dutch literally translates to ‘white women’, but could have originally meant "wise women" in dialects of Dutch Low Saxon, ‘wit’ meaning wise in a way similar to the English ‘witty’, but the name is sometimes said to have come simply from the colour of their dresses. You'll find their legends mainly in the Eastern and Northern parts of the country, formerly known as Saksenland, Saxon country, but they're known throughout Europe. In France they're called dames blanches, white women in England were said to predict life and death, and Germany has its Weiße Frauen. But the White Women of the Saxon part of the Netherlands seem to be an amalgam. Wise women, fairies, ghosts, apparitions in the fog, able to help, harm or simply tease.
This is what Johan Picardt, a 17th century Dutch doctor and historian, wrote about them in 1660:
"Among the mounds, one can find a few that have sunken in and which used to be hollow. Wherever you go, you will hear the people say that they used to be the homes of the white women, and the thought of their various works is still so fresh in the memory of many grey heads as if it had all happened only recently.
In some places where one finds these dwellings of the white women, one will hear the inhabitants declare that in some of those great mounds the white women used to live; that they used to be haunted; that they used to hear terrible cries, moans and laments of men and women; that day and night the white women fetched and helped women during labour, even when all seemed desperate; that they predicted people their good and bad fortune; that they pointed out the hiding place of things that had been lost or stolen; that the people honoured them and recognised all that was godly in them; that some of the inhabitants had on a few occasions been inside these mounds and had seen and heard incredible things there but had been made to swear on their lives not to speak of it; that they had been quicker than any creature; that they had always been dressed in white and were called not white women but simply whites because of it."
Antiquiteten by Johan Picardt, 1660, translated by Eva Weggelaar
The White Women of Tubbergen
Once, when a woman from Tubbergen was getting water from the well, she suddenly felt the touch of an icy hand on her shoulder. She turned around and saw to her dismay that at least twenty white women had surrounded her. They loomed up tall near her: mists, threatening of form and gesture. They came nearer and nearer, leaving the woman no room for escape. All was dark, except the white women. In fear, the woman called out to her husband, but he didn't hear her.
The white woman who had put her hand on the woman's shoulder said, "Why are you so frightened - come with us to dance on the hills."
"I don't want to come," said the woman. "You are evil, everyone knows that."
"When you are with us, you will never long for the world again."
"And what about my child? Oh! White women, let me go."
All the white women in the circle around her kept their silence. That rigidity was her sentence. They were without mercy. She followed them as if her hands were tied.
In the evening they missed her at the farm. They searched everywhere, but found nothing. Not even a trace of her footsteps; a few stout lads lowered themselves into the well without finding a single clue to her whereabouts.
At first they didn't think of the white women, although there are many around Tubbergen. It's an evil species in that neighbourhood, with sharp nails, and they love the hunt as it was taught to them by the white women of Lochem. They never walk fast...their paces are long and regular...but the quickest farm boy will lose the race in the end. Furthermore they always go out in large groups and, like cows surrounding a dog, they will circle the poor human until there's no escape left. You can't find white women more dangerous than those from Tubbergen! They know when a human soul is ready to be caught.
It was a great sadness to the farmer, the loss of his wife. Because they are lonely people in this area, proud dreamers. Nowhere in the country will you find people so good at hiding their thoughts, and what they have once loved, they'll never forget, since the gates to their heart are opened only with difficulty. They show no joy or sadness. They're always stiff. He who has met them, will remember them with a painful longing, and no matter where he lives, he will never forget the people of the Dutch province of Overijsel.
No one spoke a word of comfort to the farmer who had lost his wife. In the evening his neighbours came to him, the lamp was burning and they stared at the light with him. Every evening they would stiffly say goodbye, finding it difficult to find the right sentences, and then the farmer would turn off the light and, strengthened by their silent comfort, crawl into his bed-box.
The following day he was ready for work, because it was his duty to help his child through life. The neighboring women volunteered to take care of the child, so that it was washed and dressed. The farmer wasn't surprised at seeing it look so well, as if its mother helped. He never asked who took care of it. He would've done the same for his neighbours, and they in their turn never asked him any questions during the quiet evening hours.
But it is well known that women talk more among themselves than men do, and once, when the farmers' wives of the area were together, they discussed how well the child was growing up, as if a mother's touch was caring for it. They thought that the one, who was so virtuous to help the child, would come forward, but the women were silent and looked at each other. Then they started guessing after the name of the modest helper; who could it be, taking such good care of the child?
Now the women started paying attention to who entered the farm in the morning. To their surprise there wasn't a soul to be seen. All was quiet around the farm. And yet the child was always well taken care of.
They spoke to the farmer about it. Who could it be, caring for the boy like that without asking for anything in return?
Instead of going to work, the farmer waited in front of the door to his farm. No one approached the house. He was just about to go to work, when he suddenly heard people quietly talking inside. 'Did you sleep well, my child? There's still sand in the eyes - I'll wipe it out. And has the little one eaten the nice porridge yesterday? Has the little child been good?' It was the voice of his wife, with a melancholy sound. Softly he opened the door. The child was lying in the bed-box, its little hands stretched out and smiling all over his face. But there was no one else to be seen.
At that moment the farmer understood that his wife had to be in the power of the white women, and he decided to discuss how to set her free with the neighbors that evening. She desired her home, and therefore they had to advice him.
They stayed together till late that night. It was decided that in the early hours, they would take a cart to the mound where the white women lived, and tear the woman away from them. They would arm themselves with guns, and fire them simultaneously to keep the white women at a distance. They stayed awake that night and as soon as the vague, pale twilight had risen from the darkness they harnessed two fiery horses before a wagon and drove off towards the hills.
The farmers didn't say a word, so that the white women wouldn't know with how many they were, and would therefore not flee, taking the woman with them. It seemed like an ordinary farmers' cart, driving along the road to go to the market.
The white women appeared, and they waited along the road. 'Out of the way!' shouted the farmer who minded the horse, and cracked the whip. The women laughed. Suddenly all the men jumped from the cart and fired their weapons.
The women fled, the mists drew away towards the horizon. The farmers followed them, and in a grove of heather they found the woman, who begged: "Take me with you. I have longed so much for my child."
"We have come to free you," said the farmer gravely. "Now hurry up, or the white women will come back."
'No, no," she moaned, she begged. "never again the white women."
"That won't happen again." They took her by the hand and led her to the waiting cart. Threatening, the mists surrounded the cart, their mouths opened wide, so you could see their white, slithering tongues, and showing their claws. The fiery horses wildly rode back to the farm; with wide paces the indefatigable white women walked with them, and they screamed terrible words. "You'll return, dancing on the hills, caught in the veil, forever. Woman! We shall wait until these magic words are spoken, strange as they are. Life goes ahead, who can stop it? Come back with us now, then you'll know no fear. Later you will not be able to come willingly, only when the words are spoken." In this manner the white women threatened till they neared the homestead.
The woman walked inside with her head bent, like someone stricken with remorse. Outside the white women danced and they sang, waiting, a strange, monotonous song, but the woman didn't go to them. She held her hands folded in prayer. "God in heaven,' she prayed, "Father of all creatures - release me of the need - save me from the sharp teeth and claws. Guide me, for the night has come, and the dawn is far away. Am I not like the blind, as my eyes cannot see through the dark? Am I not like a cripple, as there are many stones on the road? When I hold out my arms, I can feel how powerless they are, but with Your help, my Lord, they are strong and no weakness remains within me." They placed her child in her lap, and then she said devoutly: "If I merely pleaded for myself, I would not dare approach Your throne. But Thou, oh Lord, who sees into my frivolous being, and Thou, who alone knows, what a difficult battle I fight between the alluring sin and the duties of life, will, on behalf of my child..." she wept loudly. "If it be on behalf of my child, that I don't remain in this house, then make Your will known to me. For how can we, poor people, know what is good for us?"
So she prayed and wept, while the white women danced outside, luring her. The following day, they spoke but little to her. They allowed her to live within her thoughts, for who would be able to help her? Silently she crept through the house and the barn, and slowly she learned to know each nook and cranny again.
It seemed strange to her, that everything had stayed the same. The roan cow recognised her; the animal raised its dreamy head and trustingly allowed itself to be petted. The goat bleated contentedly at her approach. The dog calmly stayed in place in front of the kennel, gazing in the distance. Even the chickens and the rooster knew that the woman was back, and when she approached across the yard they came towards her, for she would surely bring some leftover potatoes or a few crumbs of bread. Had she ever been gone? And all the things - how familiar they were to her! The fire, above which the kettle hung. The pale wooden table, and the coloured, clamped cups. The saucers on the chimney. The clock with its merry cuckoo. The clogs of her husband. The tiles of the floor. Outside the date in iron numbers. The moss-grown thatch of the roof.
It was good to be home again. If only the words would never be spoken, the words that would bring her back into the white women's power! She felt that, however strange, they would be spoken. The white women had warned her: "Life would have its course - who could stop it?" Sometimes it seemed to her as if her heart stood still, hearing the dreaded words in her ears.
She kept her silence for a long time, until at last her husband spoke to her again and asked if she'd never, never go back to the white women. "If it depended on me," she said. "No! Never again, for I know it was evil to leave you all and dance with the white women of Tubbergen. You know that it's not my decision..." She stopped, and in her eyes the suffering of her soul could be seen. None of her grief remained hidden from him.
"What is it then?" he asked again.
"There are words, which may never be spoken."
For a minute, he waited. Then he quietly went on. "Which words?"
"Away, you pig..." are the words. "When they are spoken, I'll be in the power of the white women. Make sure those words are never spoken."
"They'll never be said, those words," he laughed. "They'll never be said."
She stood up and looked at him, full of silent anger and fear. "How can you laugh? When those words are spoken, I'll be lost forever. Who will then look after the child, and who will be the farmer's wife of the homestead? Better pray for me, that those words will never be spoken. Go to the maids and lads, go to the neighbours and tell them to be careful what they say."
He stopped laughing.
Deep grooves stood drawn on his forehead after he'd warned the maids, the lads and the neighbours. They'd all promised him to be careful. And yet...when he walked past the field, he noticed the white women, and heard their victorious laughter. What did it matter to them how many years passed before the woman would once again dance with them on the hills? They knew that the words had to be spoken, for there is no stricter law than life.
They were strange days, those that followed. When the farmer returned home from the fields, he kept expecting the woman to be gone already - then he was happily surprised to see her still sitting there. 'Has nothing happened?' he inquired. 'Nothing? No one came at the door?' She would answer numbly, without looking up. 'No! Nothing happened. The words weren't spoken today.' In her voice the conviction sounded that they would be spoken, one of these days.
Frequently she would stand by the door, staring into the twilit distance. She loved her child and her house, and yet... Didn't she belong to the white women? She bent her head, to be able to discern things better.
The white women danced every night, and they sang a melody of sinful allurement. The tasks she had managed to perform during the time she'd been with the white women, she didn't do now: she never took care of the child, but left it to her neighbours. In her mind the dark shadow resided...fear and the desire to be out on the hills once again were what ruled her now.
Sometimes a white woman would quietly glide past the farm - when she was standing there on the doorstep - halting a while. Then the woman reached out her arms to her, and the words that would bring the salvation and the curse rose to her lips. Why she didn't speak them? Perhaps she thought of the first day she'd got back home, or perhaps it was, after all, the fear of leaving her child. The white woman would glide past her, along the gate, across the brook, into the evening mists, becoming one with the unreality.
When the man arrived back at the farm an hour later, he would see his wife sitting next to the fire. When he asked her, whether something had happened that day, or whether anyone had come to the door, her voice would sound hollow and without strength: "No! Nothing has happened. The words weren't spoken today."
There came a day, when the man forgot to ask. He had worked hard that day and he was tired. For that reason, he went straight to bed. The woman didn't remind him, and from then on she was alone with her thoughts. She herself didn't tell the maids or the neighbours or the lads to be careful.
Again and again the white women glided past the house, until one of them whispered to her: "Soon we'll be waiting for you on the hills.: Toneless she answered, her head bent, her hands stretched towards the ground: "I know, white woman. Let it be soon."
A few days later one of the lads was hard at work, busy binding the grain. He never noticed the pig waddling towards him till it came near and sniffed the grain. He kicked the animal...soon it came back. 'Away you pig!' cried the lad impatiently. Then he remembered the words, and he left the grain. He made his way to the farmer as fast as he could.
The man was out in the fields, but he already knew something awful had happened. "You've spoken the words," he called out.
"Yes boss." Together they went to the farm. They couldn't find the woman. There wasn't a trace of her. She never returned, the curse had been fulfilled.
She danced with the white women on the mounds, and is no longer a part of the human race. Many have seen her, wearing light, grey clothes. She wears beautiful bells in her ears, made of shining gold. Around her neck hang pearls. Still, people say she has cried a lot, and that they sometimes hear her weep over the sin that ended her life.
From ‘Nederlandsche Sagen en Legenden’, by Josef Cohen, published in 1917 by Thieme & Cie, Zutphen and translated by Eva Weggelaar