Saturday, February 18, 2012

Old Legends from the isle of Sylt

JULY 1890.


This is an old custom of his neigh-
bours the natives of Sylt, and has
saved that island from becoming
a Frisian Skye. When these people
make money abroad they come home
to spend it, or rather to save it ;
and this, too, though in a much
less degree, is true of the Heligo-
lander. With work in winter at
fishing or in the merchant service,
and attendance on the army of
holiday-makers in summer, the
dwellers in the lonely North Frisian
islands should never know what
poverty is, and, it is fair to add,
they very seldom do.

Turning from these prosaic de-
tails of Heligoland life, we find
undoubtedly among the most in-
teresting of Frisian legends those
of the neighbouring island of
Sylt, which relate to a vanished
race. Just as the Picts of Scot-
land are credited with all manner
of marvellous feats in the way of
buildings, &c., so the Öndereer-
sken, the Unterirdischen,or Under-
ground Folk, are the subject of
many a weird tale. There are
several subterranean or earth-
houses in Sylt, so that the name
given to the people who lived in
them is appropriate enough. In-
deed there are probably many of
these curious houses waiting to be
discovered. At a time when the
more intelligent people began to
discredit the stories of dwarfs and
brownies, the fashion seems to have
crept in of explaining the curious
mounds and hillocks which one
finds all over the island by saying
that they were the graves of heroes
or giants of old times. Investiga-
tion has proved how true the old
legends were ; how untrue the
modern. There were many elves ;
there were no giants. For example,
near Keitum, in Sylt, there is the
Tipkenhügel, with a fine view of
the north, east, and south corners
of Sylt. This was, tradition says,
the grave of heroes who fought
against the Danes in the reign of
Waldemar IV. The hill was
opened in 1870, and a great heap
of stones was found, but no trace
of human remains. South-west of
Keitum lie the Oewenhügel and
Klöwenhügel. There, tradition
said, lay the great sea-heroes Ow
and Klow - Klow in his golden
ship ; but when Professor Handel-
mann opened the mound, there was
no trace of any human remains.
On the other hand, we know that
these mounds were the favourite
trysting-places of the witches, and
there they held their midnight
revels. When a Sylt witch met
another on their eerie errands
abroad, or stumbled upon a Sylt
sailor in foreign lands, the question
to put to them was ever this :
"Steit Oewenhoog ; steit Klöwen-
hoog ; steit Stippelstien nogh ?"-
Stands yet the hill of Ow, the hill
of Klöw, and the Stippelstein? And
the answer as the eerie ones fled
was, " Da hebben wi so mannige
bliede Naght gehat " There have
we had many a blithe night.

But if the giants cannot be
traced, the dwarfs can. (1) The
Danghoog, near Wenningstedt, was
opened by Dr Wiebel of Hamburg-
in 1868. An undeniable dwelling
of underground folk was discovered.
It was approached in old times by
a passage from the south, 27 feet
long and about 2 feet high. The
central chamber is 17 feet long,
10 feet broad, and 5 feet high;
a fireplace was found, and the
bones of a little man, clay urns,
and stone weapons. Externally
this dwelling is merely a swelling
great mound, that no one would
particularly notice. It is entered
nowadays by a trap-door in the
roof. The visitor descends a steep
ladder and finds himself in a
capacious enough chamber, lined
by twelve huge blocks of, I was
informed, Swedish granite, though
how it got there I cannot imagine.

One has the strangest feeling in the
world in thus visiting the un-
doubted home of a race that has
vanished as completely from the
world as has the mastodon. Put
a fire in this artificial cave, and
you have the very home, not in-
deed of primitive man, of a man
far indeed from primitive, but
one who knew how to construct a
most ingenious and far from un-
comfortable dwelling, particularly
well fitted for the inhabitant of a
storm-swept island. The 'Archae-
ological Review' for January 1890
contains an interesting diagram of
the earth-house known as Maes-how
in Orkney. It closely resembles
the Danghoog, except that Maes-
how has cells off the central cham-
ber, and is larger in every way.

Maes-how is, or rather was, ap-
proached by a passage 53 feet long,
and for the most part 2 feet 4
inches to 2 feet 6 inches in height.
The central chamber, when com-
plete, was about 20 feet high in
the centre, and is 15 feet square.

How such dwellings as Maes-
how and the Danghoog were lit,
whether there was a hole in the
roof (to allow smoke to escape and
air to enter), except in times of
danger, we know not. Such houses
are found all over what may be
termed the region of Scandinavian
influence ; but the people who built
them are certainly not the Scandi-
navians of history. Dates in in-
vestigating matters of this kind
are mere guesses ; but it is interest-
ing to find in Mr M 'Ritchie's valu-
able article above mentioned that
Maes-how " is believed to have
been invaded about a thousand
years ago. It was entered in the
twelfth century by some of those
North-men who were on their way
to the Holy Land ; and these early
tourists have incised various in-
scriptions on its inner walls. But
at that date it was empty, and
had been rifled many centuries be-
fore. One legendary tale places
the date of its original despolia-
tion as far back as the year 920 ;
and states that 'Olaf the Norse-
man' was its invader ; and that
he encountered its possessor, whom
he overcame - after a deadly
struggle. And since 'the common
traditions of the country [up to
the year 1861, when it was re-
opened] represented it as the
abode of a goblin, who was named
"the Hog boy,'" it would seem
that the prevailing blood of the
country-people, in that district, is
akin to that of this 'Olaf the

//1 In the Krockhiigeln Professor Handelmann of Kiel, however, found the
skeleton of a man of 6 to 7 feet ; in the larger Brönshoog a skull, and in the smaller Brönshoog some human bones.//

Norseman'; and that, therefore,
in this instance, the popular mem-
ory reaches back for nearly a
thousand years, with the most per-
fect precision."(1) This observation
is even more true of Sylt than of
the Orcadians, - for century after
century for what must have been
a thousand years, the story was
handed on from sire to son of a
race of wild men, one of whose
dwellings was the Dänghoog, a
story only proved to be absolutely
correct in 1868, when the Däng-
hoog- more fortunate than Maes-
how- was for the first time opened,
and its ancient tenant found on
the floor of his prehistoric home.
Singular indeed is the tenacity of
man's memory.

But, it may be asked, if tradition
so truly spake of long-forgotten
homes, does it tell us nothing of
the people who lived in them ?

Undoubtedly it does. But here
we meet a difficulty of which
archaeology, in the strictest sense,
knows nothing. We verify the
tradition of subterranean homes by
going down into them and seeing
for ourselves the very places. But
when Hansen tells us a story which
he heard from a very ancient "sehr
gescheidten und gemüthlichen Frau
aus Braderup", that the underground
folk sang and danced in the moon-
light on the mounds above their
houses, but were thieves, deceitful
and idle, we know that to us
it will not be given to find a red
cap which these Puks, as they are
called, have worn, nor will the
most unwearied watcher see a
midnight revel on the Dänghoog.
Yet the tale is not absolutely in-
credible. The old woman said
those folk had stone axes, and we
know they had, for they have been
found. Nor is it in the slightest
degree probable that the under-
ground men were killed all at
once by the invaders. Indeed
Frisian "history" revels in ac-
counts of the wars between the
giants and the dwarfs - i.e., the
Frisian invaders and the indigen-
ous population; and long after the
race was conquered, in the lonelier
portions of an island that was al-
ways lonely, the remnant of the
people would still live in the
houses that their conquerors did
not envy them; would steal, since
stealing was the only possible re-
prisal; and when they sought the
air by night on the green mounds
that concealed their dwellings,
they may easily have been seen
when they thought themselves
unwatched. Although as a race
the dwarfs were long extinct,
small families of good folk may
well have survived, curiosities in
the museum of man's history, and
have become by rumour the
brownies and fairies of medieval
Europe. Fairyland lies nearer
our doors than we think. When
the British Isles were invaded
from the fens of Holstein and
from Sylt itself, it is not difficult
to understand how the legends of
goblin and sprite, of wee men, and
uncanny powers were brought into
our islands; while Scottish trav-
ellers from the Orkneys and
Perthshire, where there are nu-
merous traces of underground
houses, could confirm the tale. In-
deed, while Alfred ruled England,
it is not impossible that a solitary
red cap or two still sat in the
moonlight on the white sand-hills
of Sylt, the last of a vanished
race, already living anew in the
minds of men as gnomes and
fairies. The development may
be said to have taken this form:
we have -1- a race living chiefly,
or at times of necessity, in under-

//1 Arch. Rev. , vol. iv. p. 403.//

ground houses ; -2- the race con-
quered the survivors living per-
force in these houses for safety;
-3- the race almost exterminated
- those who still live are regarded,
for the most part, as wicked, imp-
ish, or mischievous - but with
some exceptions in the case of
those who may have rewarded
protection by faithful if some-
what mysterious service; -4- the
race quite exterminated, living
in tradition, partly (a) as a
vanished people, but for the most
part (b) as demons or fairies.

It is curious to find that even
in this century traces of the little
people are supposed to be found
in words and rhymes in children's
games in Sylt words meaningless
in themselves, but ascribed by
tradition to the old race. If this
is really so, then children again
do here prove themselves the true
folk-lorists. I have often doubted
whether the folk-lore, and, we may
add, traces of the speech of the
past, are really handed down, as
the saying goes, from sire to son;
and I am rather inclined to take
it that the links are much nearer
and closer in the chain of tradi-
tion than father and boy, it is
rather the children who tell each
other; the little maid of thirteen
or fourteen who tells the boys of
nine and ten, who again, as they
grow older, pass on the same
stories and the same rhymes in
a very conservative way. Grown-
up people have an unhappy habit
when telling tales of their youth
of embellishing the narrative with
the aid of the experience which
life has given them since they
first heard the narrative. Chil-
dren happily don't read much; in
Sylt they could not, because there
were no books, to the present
day no book has been printed in
Heligolandish ; and if they ro-
manced a bit, it was only a little,
for the very scene of every Sylt
legend was near enough for any
child to visit, and literal accuracy
of detail - where such accuracy
was, in fact, impossible - was prob-
ably the greatest defect of that
primitive folk-lore society, the
children of Sylt.

Hansen unfortunately does not
seem to have noted the exact
words of which he spoke; but he
gives the following tale, first in
German, then, in the Sylt dialect.

Once upon a time three witches
were belated at a midnight dance.
One of them, called Glühauge, sat
upon a sand-hill, and gazed at the
glow of the approaching dawn;
when lo ! she beheld two other
witches speeding towards her, one
known as the "Lame Duck," for
she waddled about as she came;
the one behind was called the
"Wild Cow," for she ran fast over
the plain. Glühauge called out,
in banter, to the Lame Duck:
"Run, run, Lame Duck; I'll back
you against the Cow, though she
ate the lout" (zur Wette mit der
Kuh, die den Rekel (grossen Kerl)
ass)." (1) But as she spoke, at that
moment uprose the sun, dispelling
the twilight, and making the hill all
shining. "Huh! what was that?"
cried she, affrighted, and - fled to
the devil: the game was done.

In Syltish :

"Gleesooge seet üp Stinkenbarig
En glüüret ön de Daageruad.
Jü terret höör Sester
Laap, laap, lam Enk,
Hur de Kü rent,
Diar Rekel eet!
Hu ! wat wiar dit?
De Daageruad spleet;
De Barig bruan önder.
Gleesooge floog naa de Hinger. "

And here may I mention that

//This is somewhat obscure, unless rekel has a special meaning//

evidently the Sylt witches knew
their rights as to time a great deal
better than do the people who
write shilling shockers about them.

Witches and ghosts are nearly al-
ways represented nowadays as flee-
ing at the midnight hour. This
is a very modern notion. The
witches of olden times had a much
longer time to themselves - clearly
up to sunrise. It was certainly

"That hour, o'night's black arch the

before Tam o'Shanter set out on
his way home; when he beheld the
witches' revel it must have been
nearly one, and Burns knew the
superstitions of his countrymen
too well to make a mistake in his
folk-lore. On Christmas Eve, in-
deed, English ghosts seem to have
fled when the last sound of the
midnight bell died away. But
otherwise witches and ghosts had
from sundown, to sunrise for their
cantrips and witcheries. In short,
the idea of an 'early closing hour
for ghosts' is a purely modern one.

Who were this people who con-
quered the underground folk? The
story common in the North Frisian
islands is that they came from the
East in the Mannigfuald, and
landed between the Schelde and
the Riperfurt. There are many
versions of this story. One tells of
a people of the Levant who, in con-
sequence of great tumults or pres-
sure, were forced to leave their
native land and seek a new home,
under the leadership of one called
Uald. All seafaring people, they
chose rather to journey by water
than overland, and in one great
ship or in a flotilla of small ships,
as is much more probable - they
set sail. For some days all went
well; then arose quarrels about
many matters the rule on board,
the course of the ship, &c. Hap-
pily a great storm arose, which
made them note how important it
was for their own safety that they
should be of one mind. The sim-
plest way of securing this end,
and of pacifying the angry sea-
god, was obviously to throw the
troublesome members of the crew
overboard, and this was done
with the most satisfactory results.
Scarce had the last Jonah gone
when the wind fell; the clouds
melted away, and in the pleasant
night-sky Orion, the 'Mori-Roth' of
the Frisians, was seen, and his belt
or Peri-Pikh showed the way to
the West. All was peace and joy
after the storm, when, as our nov-
elists say, "a strange thing hap-
pened." There was a plashing at
the bow, and on the prow appeared
the figure of a pale man with long
hair and garments dripping wet.

No word did he speak, not a
glance did he throw on the awe-
struck seamen, but leapt at once
into the darkness of the ship's
hold. No one followed the stran-
ger, but all waited in awe for his
reappearance. Then from the
deepest recesses of the ship came
strange and awful sounds, and
every man held his breath. It
was as if the stranger were plead-
ing with the spirit or god of these
travelling folk for pity, for safety,
for deliverance from their great
sufferings. Then clear and dis-
tinct came the answer: "Hear
my voice, and be obedient to my
words. Justice, unity, and hope
are all-essential for the good of
the folk, so long as they are on the
earth." The warning words of
Uald (who now seems not so much
captain as spiritual leader, or ship's
spirit), " Justice, unity, and hope,"
echoed through the ship; every
man heard them, and in each
man's soul they sank deep. Three
days and three nights was this
strange conversation repeated.

Then one day the stranger disap-
peared as marvellously as he came,
and, as they passed a jutting rocky
point, the mariners saw in the twi-
light the pale figure of their inter-
cessor for the last time.

When morning broke, the brav-
est of the party sought the Spintje,
as the lowest hold was called, and
sought for any traces of the mys-
terious stranger or of the ship-
spirit, and were rewarded by find-
ing a Ziegenhaut - skin or parch-
ment with these words : "To
become a just, united, and happy
people ye must have laws and
judges: so long as ye are on this
pilgrimage, or in danger, ye must
bear the yoke of a king, and do
what he bids you. When ye come
to land, this ye must do: settle
yourselves in peace, and forget not
justice, love, and hope shall dwell
with you, and of them have ye the
signs." And when the skin was
quite unrolled, three little golden
figures of these virtues were found

Many hundred years later, says
our Frisian story-teller, one would
find in most Frisian houses and on
the ships representations of the
same virtues justice as a woman,
with sword and balances; unity or
love, a woman with three babes,
one nestling in. her bosom; hope,
with one hand on her anchor and
with the other holding a bird.
These were carved on walls and
cupboards, or worked in metal.

The reader of the writing was
Freso, and he the wanderers chose
to be their king, or visible Uald.
But their troubles were by no
means at an end, and they had
many adventures before passing
through the Pillars of Hercules,
which the Frisians call "dit Nau."
Then they entered the Atlantic,
which they call "the Spanish sea."
There they found great storms and
thick mists, and thought they had
reached the end of the world; but
the courage of Freso, and of his
brother, who was steersman, pulled
them through. At last they saw
a sail, which they took at first to
be a spectre, followed it, and passed
through the English Channel.
Freso landed at last at Vlies or
Flushing (and if we believe the
chronicler Heimreich, it was in au-
tumn 313 B.C.); Saxo, his brother,
went to Hadelen; and Bruno, an-
other leader, fixed on the Weser,
and founded Brunswick.

It is difficult to know what to
make of this strange tale. I am
inclined to think it is made up of
two or three stories of very vary-
ing dates. The oldest part prob-
ably relates to the arrival of the
Frisians from over the sea, led by
their god, who in later times was,
by euphemistic process, turned
sometimes into Uald, the Old or
Elder one, sometimes into Freso:
that the vessel came from the East,
and passed through the Pillars of
Hercules, is purely medieval em-
broidery, when it was the fashion
to trace the descent of every peo-
ple from fabulous Eastern travel-
lers. Where the people came from
I am not concerned here to inquire,
the more that, according to local
tradition, the islands were nearly
depopulated at the time of the in-
vasion of England, and were taken
possession of by Jutes, whose tra-
ditions, especially as to their race's
origin, may well have got mixed
with the traditions of the Frisian
islanders proper. Now Jutland,
we know, has its legend in the
younger Edda of Odin's long pil-
grimage from the East, and how
he came to "Reidgothland, which
is now called Jutland, and there
took possession of as much as he
wanted." (1) It is at the least a

//Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology, 1889, p. 27.//

possible theory I claim no more
for it that the Jutes may have
imposed the legend of an Eastern
origin upon the simple Syltist's
tale of the island's conquest by
tall men from over the sea.

I have given this rambling tale
at perhaps too great length. But
there is a substratum of truth in
it. The Frisians or invaders, call
them what we will, were strangers
to the low-lying marsh-lands and
islands which they occupied, and
they came over-sea, and not over-
land. "Frisia" is an expression so
confusing that I do not intend to
pursue a subject quite foreign to
this paper and try to define it, and
shall simply assume that a band of
hardy sailors landed in one or an-
other of the North Frisian islands,
and finding the fishing good and
the bays convenient for boats,
proceeded to slaughter the inhab-
itants, the small people, active but
unskilled, of whom we have already
heard. There are many legends of
the fights; they were like all other
battles, very bloody and very
glorious to the winning side. I
think most of the accounts are
entirely apocryphal. One or two
points, however, are interesting.
The head of the dwarfs was King
Finn, and the underground house
he lived in can still be seen.
Finn is a very interesting name.
Grimm says : "Fin is spoken
of in the Traveller's Song, as
ruler of the Frisians 'Fin Folc-
walding weold Fresna cynne'-
which confirms the statement of
Nennius that his fathers name
was Folcwald (or Folcwalda).

Again Fin appears in Beowulf.
It is side by side with Fin that
Beowulf introduces Hengist, a
great name with the Kentishmen;
must not they have been a Fris-
ian rather than a Jutish race?" (1)
This may be quite true; the
Kentishmen are probably Fris-
ians, but Sylt was in all likeli-
hood populated by Jutes after
the exodus to England, and then
it was that Finn became head of
the dwarfs - i.e., of a vanished,
or at least conquered and vanish-
ing race.

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