Witte Wieven: Ghostly Ladies Of The Marshes

Probably as long as people have roamed the earth and have been able to tell stories, they have enjoyed scaring each other with spooky stories about the creatures of the night. In Twente, in the eastern part of the Netherlands near the German border, one of the favorite spooky creatures is the "Witte Wief" which literally translates as "White Lady". Some, however, argue that the word "wit" is derived from the old word "wid" which means "wise" and therefore "Witte Wieven" are not white ladies but wise ladies.

According to local folklore, these white ladies roam the marshes at night and lure people into the swamps to drown them there. They are also regarded as omens of death. On the other hand, there are sagas in which they appear as wise women that help and cure. Whether evil or good, they are always described as long-haired women with long white gowns. I once hiked in the moors here at dusk on a cold, misty autumn afternoon and I can assure you that it was very easy to mistake the wisps of fog for ghostly creatures in long white dresses. They are misleading also, making the trail hard to see. Ending up in the swamp was a real danger. A spooky experience indeed. However, scholars believe there is more to the story than creepy surroundings and a vivid imagination.

White ladies are not a specifically Dutch invention. They are part of a very old, pre-Christian, northern European tradition. France has Dame Blanche, the Irish have Sídhe and the Scandinavian countries have álfar (elves). They all are white, shiny creatures associated with death and wisdom. Scholars believe they all go back to the Völva, the high priestesses of the pre-Christian Nordic cultures. The Völva were wise women, usually from the highest classes that were highly respected because of their wisdom and power. They were well trained in the secrets of their religion. If you needed advice, even if you were a king, you would call upon a Völva to assist you with her wisdom. She usually did not live in a village but traveled on her own (sometimes accompanied by a group of young students) from place to place. These were the women that had knowledge about natural medicine, political strategies, meteorology and the like. Knowledge not shared by the common people. Knowledge that gave them immense power because it was intimidating. Power for which they were admired and feared at the same time. You did not want to make a Völva your enemy, for she could easily send death upon you.

The Völva are no mythological creatures. They are historic figures that for example the Romans commented upon in their travel logs, and they remained important figures in daily life until the early Middle Ages. By then, Christianity had firmly settled in Northern Europe and the once so powerful Völva slowly disappeared. Her spirit survived, however, in the figure of the white lady.

I wonder, if some of this tradition of a strong female, a wise female, has also survived in Dutch and other Nordic cultures where women tended to be more independent and not subordinated to men in respect to their southern European sisters. For centuries travelers form the South have marveled at those big, blond, bossy Dutch women who legally had little rights (just as all European women had), but in practice just did whatever they wanted (which most other European women would never dare), and were still respected for it by their men (a nightmarish idea for most European men at the time).