So, what do mermaids have to do with this? In Dutch folklore a lot of these floods are either caused by greedy villagers or by fishermen catching a mermaid and refusing to let her free. They talk about pavement being laid with bricks of gold and hooves from horses being of silver with villagers wearing clothes made out of the best fabric around. Sadly, because their villages and cities were always so pristine they did everything in their power to cast out beggars and travelers. When there was no mermaid involved the story would describe the flood as a consequence of their greediness. However, with every story that does involve a mermaid being caught by a fisherman, the place they come from tends to be the same. Golden pavement, silver hooves, etc. A merman, being the mermaid's husband, would come above water and warn them of the upcoming floods if they didn't set his wife free.
dat ge heeft geroofd mijn vrouwe,
Westenschouwen zal vergaan
alleen de toren zal blijven staan’
'Westenschouwen, you shall grieve
That you stole my wife away from me,
Westenschouwen shall fall
Only its tower shall stand tall'
In this example the merman curses the village by putting seaweed & sand in the gullies of the city after the people mercilessly killed his wife by putting her up for display. After he leaves, storms flood the place with one single tower standing.
Even in Dutch folklore mermaids were seen as such beautiful creatures that fishermen couldn't help but take them home. They weren't the only ones, however! We also have the Nixie, who in some stories was said to be a beautiful woman who would jump out of the water to sit behind you on the carriage. When you reached the end of the body of water she would jump back in, never to be seen again.
The Mermaid of Edam
Around the 1400s there was a mermaid sighting close to Edam. A mermaid was stuck behind the wrong side of the dike because of a heavy storm. After the storm, the hole was fixed so she had no way to go back to the sea. People described her as drifting between the edges of the lake asleep, unless she dove to the bottom of the lake to eat. She was beautiful and her body was adorned with moss and seaweed. There would often be women sailing on the lake to milk the cows on the other side who were shocked to find her. However, after some time they got the courage to approach her and pulled her out of the lake.
The Mermaid didn't speak their language nor did they understand her, so they did what any rational person in the 1400s The Netherlands would do - strip her of all her moss to put clothes on her. They fed her and she ate our type of food, but she always longed to go back to the water, so they guarded her. She became quite the tourist attraction and because a lot of Haarlemmers wanted to have her for their city, the people of Edam gave her as a gift to them in the end. She learned how to spin wool and lived a very long life. When she died they buried her in the graveyard of the church because she made a lot of crosses in her lifetime (which could also mean she became Christian). In 2014 they rebuilt a statue in Haarlem to remember her.
The Mermaid & The Mother
Once upon a time in the province of Limburg near a big castle a servant took two children out to the beach. He met someone and spoke with them while the children continued playing on the beach ahead, but when he was done they were nowhere to be found. He searched all day and returned to the castle with only their socks. Everyone helped searching for the children, but it was to no avail - they were gone. After a lot of grieving the lady of the house took a stroll on the same beach and to her amazement saw a beautiful mermaid singing in the sea. The mermaid asked her why she was so sad and the lady relayed the story of her missing children to her. "Oh! Don't worry." She replied. "They are safe and happy in my castle."
The mother pleaded with the mermaid to see her children or to bring them back but the mermaid refused. She didn't give up however because everyday she went back to the same beach to plead with her again and again. There came a day the mermaid was sick of it and dragged the mother into the water to take her to her castle. The castle was made out of crystal and on every corner you could imagine was a little light to illuminate the darkness of the ocean. She brought the mother to a room with a glass window and to her surprise she saw tens of children playing together; including her own. Sadly, she was only allowed to look through the window and pleaded with the mermaid again. "You can't go inside, but I'll allow you to live here and look through the glass window everyday."
Many moons passed and everyday the mother would stand outside the window looking at how her children were happily playing with the others. However, she didn't give up and by pleading as much as she did back then the mermaid struck her a deal. She could take her children back home if she would make the mermaid a cloak of her own hair. The mother was handed a pot of fat to grow it out and started to get to work. The first time she finished the mermaid was not impressed and demanded that she do it again. When the mother came back a second time the mermaid was happy and called for a crystal carriage pulled by other mermaids to take her family home.
ConclusionMermaids in Dutch folklore, although beautiful, are often related to misfortune, curses & floods. Their symbolism and stories seem parallel to the peoples’ struggle with the sea. Our relationship with her is a complicated one as she both destroyed our towns and livelihoods all the while giving us plenty of abundance over the centuries. On the other hand, it also highlights how we treat and have treated the nature around us. Nowadays we put great emphasis on co-existing with water and try to educate on the importance of our delta works. We can not tame the sea, but we can work together to make it livable for both of us.
This post was originally posted on June 22nd, 2021