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Word of the day: sage (legend, folk tale)

Earlier this year I discussed words that were related to the word ‘story’: VERTELLEN (to tell), VERHAAL (story), SPROOKJE (fairy tale), FABEL (fable), LEGENDE (legend), EPOS (epic story), FOLKLORE enzovoort, etcetera.  


At the same time I was looking for the Dutch epic hero and after a long search I arrived at the Soldaat van Oranje because this second World War adventure story was made into a successful book, a film and a musical. Today this musical has welcomed its millionth visitor in its thousandth performance since 2010. The show is so successful that the organisers have extended its run until April 2014.

When I was in Terneuzen in southern Zeeland last weekend, I was reminded of another epic story which has its alleged roots in Dutch history. It is the famous SAGE (legend) that found its way into world literature, opera’s and even contemporary pirate films. It is the legend of the ‘Vliegende Hollander’ (the flying Dutchman).

The word SAGE (legend) is related to the German verb ‘sagen’, Dutch ‘zeggen’ and English ‘say’. A SAGE, therefore, is merely what is being said or told. The word must be over a thousand years old but it was not recorded in Dutch texts until 1483.

The SAGE of the Flying Dutchman tells of a reckless Dutch captain, named Van der Decken. His East Indiaman ended up in a storm when it was trying to round the Cape of Good Hope and eventually it sunk. As the ship was sinking Captain van der Decken challenged and cursed God crying out that he would round this Cape, even if he had to keep sailing until doomsday!

Not a good idea, because that’s exactly what happened. The Captain and his ship were eternally damned, and they will be sailing the earth till the day of judgment. Even in the twentieth century there were sailors who claim to have sighted the Flying Dutchman.

Last weekend when I was roaming around the old centre of the port of Terneuzen trying to avoid the many rowdy fairground attractions and looking for a quiet place to eat, I passed the Greek restaurant Delphi. On its wall there was a plaque saying that this house was once the residence of Willem van der Decken.

One Easter morning in the seventeenth century – against everyone’s advice – Willem embarked on the doomed ship which had a one way destination to hell. For a short impression of the story watch this short animation.

Who was this Willem (or Hendrick or Philip as some say) van der Decken? Did this horror Captain who was in league with the Devil really exist? Or is it just a legend that has no basis in reality?

The story of the Flying Dutchman is just as Dutch as the silly American story of Hansje Brinker’s who stuck his finger into the leaking dike. De Vliegende Hollander was invented by English sailors. Why would the English invent such a horror story? The answer is simple. Because the Brits hated the Hollanders in those bad old days of war and rivalry.

The legend of the ghost ship is likely to have originated from 17th-century nautical folklore when the Dutch ruled the world and the waves and humiliated the English. The oldest written version of the legend dates to the late 18th century. The legend gave birth to romantic literature. Do these lines ring a bell?

‘Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night ;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.’

The ‘slimy things on the slimy sea amid the death-fires’ were the creation of the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. This was the first poem that readers encountered in the first edition of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (co-authored with William Wordsworth) in 1798.

Several authors used the ghost ship as an ingredient for their gothic horror ballads and stories: Washington Irving, Edward Fitzball, Edgar Allen Poe, Frederick Marryat etc. It was Marryat in fact, who first used Terneuzen as the home of Captain Van der Decken in his 1839 story ‘The Phantom Ship’.

Why Terneuzen? Apparently Marryat who was an English Royal Navy officer as well, was involved in military battles against Napoleon’s troops on the Scheldt near Terneuzen in 1809 when he was a young lad. Over four thousand British marines caught the ‘Zeeuwse Koorts’ (a kind of malaria) and fell ill. Less than 50 soldiers died in the battles.

Marryat must have retained such bad memories of this period in Terneuzen that he decided to damn Terneuzen and call it the home town of the cursed captain some thirty years later.

Terneuzen turned Marryat’s curse into a blessing in the 20th century. Tourists from all over the world now visit the third port of the Netherlands under the delusion that it was the birthplace of the Flying Dutchman and his horrible ghost ship.

Van der Decken’s fictional house now accommodates a Greek restaurant carrying the ominous name Delphi. Delphi, as you know, was the navel of the Earth in ancient Greece and the horrific site of the Delphic oracle. Sitting on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth the priestess, the Pythia, inhaled the fumes, fell into a trance and raved ecstatically.

What stories did she imagine? What images did she try to put into words? What SAGEN (legends) did she prophesy?

Her visions must have been as spellbound as what Coleridge’s ancient mariner experienced in the hell of his nightmare when…

‘… every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root ;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.’

We decided not to eat Greek at Delphi’s and went for mussels instead.