Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Mythology: Dutch

  • MythologyDutchFlemish
  • Cultural Field:
  • Author:
    Halink, SimonPoland, Stefan
  • Text:

    Dutch historical consciousness was strongly focused on the early-modern period, when the Dutch state gained its independence, became a maritime and colonial power, and experienced a Golden Age in literature and the arts. There was a robust Classicist celebration of the stalwart tribe of the Batavi, mentioned by Tacitus, whose love of freedom was seen as a national characteristic and prefiguration of modern independence. This Batavian ancestry myth persisted into the 19th century; but tribal-Germanic nativism and pre-Christian mythology were much less pronounced in the Netherlands than in Germany or in the Scandinavian countries.

    The first wave of literary interest in Scandinavian mythology, that had swept over Northern Europe since the 1770s, seems to have gone unnoticed in Dutch literary circles. It was only in 1822 that the Society of Dutch Literature (Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde), inspired by contemporary debates in Denmark, organized an essay competition on Scandinavian mythology and its value for Dutch literary life. Tellingly, the call needed to be reissued four years later, and the number of responses was only two. The prize was given to Nicolaas Westendorp, a rural clergyman based near Groningen, and amateur antiquarian. In his mythological prize essay, published in 1830, Westendorp – well aware of Jacob Grimm’s theories on the survival of pre-Christian elements in contemporary folklore – linked Scandinavian mythology to Dutch folk tales and superstitions (some of which had been collected in Zutphen in 1829 by the poet and antiquarian Anthony Staring). These connections, however, were somewhat superficial and lacked a historical-linguistic underpinning; Westendorp’s attempt was harshly rejected by Grimm in the preface to the Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Nonetheless, Westendorp was well respected in the Netherlands as a pioneer in the fields of archeology and mythology. His prize essay prompted Staring to translate Gustav Legis’s Handbuch der altdeutschen und nordischen Götterlehre into Dutch (both published in 1831).

    Westendorp's example was also followed by the Dutch teacher, librarian and publicist Derk Buddingh, resulting in his Verhandeling over de Noordse Godenleer (“Treatise on Nordic mythology”, 1836) and Edda-Leer: Handboek voor de noordsche mythologie (“Edda-Lore: Handbook of Nordic mythology”,1837). Influenced by the recently published Deutsche Mythologie, Buddingh increasingly believed that, despite the considerable differences between the Netherlands and Scandinavia in terms of both culture and landscape, the Æsir system of the North had “preserved a benchmark, allowing the peoples of Germania and Batavia to assess the remnants of their ancient myths, which are closely related.” Buddingh also made use of Frisian sources, which were considered to be expressive of an authentic storytelling tradition that could be traced all the way back to tribal antiquity. Here he relied on the assistance of Montanus de Haan Hettema and Joast Hiddes Halbertsma (one of Grimm’s most important contacts in the Netherlands and the first to review the Deutsche Mythologie). It is not unlikely that the Oera Linda Book (a quasi-ancient manuscript “discovered” in the 1860s by its anonymous forgers as a satirical prank) drew on Buddingh’s claim that Freya had been venerated as the “mother of the Frisians” (mater Frisiae) as late as 1303.

    The predominant reliance on Scandinavian (and Frisian) textual sources was due in part to a significant lack of Dutch folk-tale collections. Grimm (a member of the Hollandsche Instituut van Wetenschappen, Letterkunde en Schoone Kunsten since 1812) had tried to acquire Dutch (“Low-German”) material through his correspondence network, but this branch of the Germanic storytelling tradition was widely considered underrepresented in the framework of the Deutsche Mythologie. This was also the reason why one of Grimm’s most promising students, Johann Wilhelm Wolf, travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium in order to collect more material; this was published as Niederländische Sagen in 1843; a Dutch translation followed the next year. Wolf’s Deutsche Märchen und Sagen of 1845 was dedicated to J.F. Willems and referred to his Frisian assistants T.R. Dijkstra and Willem Doorenbos. In Ghent, Wolf also founded the short-lived journal Wodana: Museum voor Nederduitse Oudheidskunde (named after Wodan, the Netherlandic equivalent of Odin) with the explicit intent to stimulate mythological and folkloric research among Belgian scholars. Although the journal was discontinued after only two issues (both appeared in 1843), it was later acknowledged as a precursor to the new journal Volkskunde, founded in 1888 by Pol de Mont and others.

    Meanwhile, mythologists in the Netherlands attempted to keep the Old Icelandic sources out of the equation and increasingly focused on indigenous documentation. In 1840, Antonie Niermeyer, a professor in Leiden, published his Verhandeling over het Booze Wezen in het bijgeloof onzer natie: Eene bijdrage tot de kennis onzer voorvaderlijke mythologie (“Treatise on the Evil Being in the superstition of our nation: A contribution to the knowledge of our ancestral mythology”). In Middelburg, a local prize essay competition even requested a treatise on pagan religion in the province of Zeeland; the winning essay, by the theologian Johannes ab Utrecht Dresselhuis, was published in 1845. The idea of national “Dutch mythology” reached a high point with the publication of the Proeve van een kritisch woordenboek der Nederlandsche mythologie (“Specimen of a critical dictionary of Dutch mythology”, Utrecht 1846) by the historian and archivist Laurens Philippe Charles van den Bergh. Van den Bergh, who had already published a collection of Dutch (mostly Frisian) legends in 1836, typified the ancestral world-view in Grimmian terms as something that “lives on unnoticed even today, in ancient customs, fairy tales, expressions, and especially in popular superstitions, just like a felled tree, whose roots are still sprouting offshoots.”

    In the northern province of Friesland, the pre-Christian culture of the ancient Frisians – as represented by their most famous pagan ruler, king Redbad (d. 719 AD) – became the subject of local and Frisian-nationalist veneration. Paganist sympathies merged with anti-Holland sentiments and came to fruition in the concept of a separate Frisian mythology explored by T.R. Dijkstra (who had previously assisted Wolf) and Harmen Sytstra. In 1845, Sytstra named his Frisian-language literary journal Iduna after the Old Norse goddess of eternal youth and rejuvenation, Iðunn. That deity was popular among national movements throughout Europe, at least since the publication of Herder’s essay Iduna, oder der Apfel der Verjüngung (1796), as an allegory of the re-awakening of primordial authenticity through national literature.

    Towards the end of the 19th century, anti-Christian and völkisch tendencies become more prominent in this genre of popular treatises. In the conclusion to his 1897 account of the Germanic religion (Germaansche godenleer), the schoolteacher J. van Leeuwen takes a critical stance towards the Christian faith that replaced it. He paints a glowing picture of the indigenous pagan tradition “which Christianity has taken from us, the Germanic peoples, supplanting with an alien creed the old ways which had evolved from national life itself. Exactly how Christianity has fulfilled the task it took upon itself in the Germanic lands, I will not judge here.”

    In Dutch literature the influence of the mythological interest had remained rather limited. One of the first Romantic authors in the Netherlands, Arnout Drost, published his only historical novel Hermingard van de Eikenterpen (“Hermingard of the Oak Knolls”) in 1832, at the age of twenty-two, evoking a false dawn of Christianization in Batavian times. Drost, an adherent of the réveil, a spiritual Protestant movement, had scant interest in pagan religion for its own sake. Shortly after, the more influential figure of Jacob van Lennep did much to glorify the Dutch tribal descent in Romantic terms (for instance in his Nederlandsche legenden; “Dutch Legends”, 1844), but he would still mostly thematize the triumph of Christianity over the ancestral pagan cults.

    Of the relatively few Dutch poets who found inspiration in Germanic mythology, the most noteworthy is the fin de siècle symbolist Herman Gorter, who in 1889 published his famous lyrical poem Mei (May). In well over 4000 lines, the poem recounts the love between a poet and the girl Mei, who personifies the month of that name. Surrounded by typically Dutch landscapes, she encounters the god Balder – who is blind in this poem – and listens to his songs. When the music stops, he disappears, and Mei’s search for him leads her to Wodan and the other gods. They, too, are unaware of Balder’s whereabouts. Eventually, she finds him in a valley, where the god proclaims that music is his soul and that, in his soul, he is a god. After this, Mei vanishes into the Earth. Gorter’s use of such mythological themes shows obvious Wagnerian influences.

    Although multiple ships, boats, societies and sports clubs – especially those associated with water and ice – were named after Old Norse deities, a full-scale cultivation of Germanic mythology never went mainstream in Dutch culture. Interest in these subjects was significantly greater in those parts of the country that were further removed from the urbanized heartland of the West. Mythological themes figure prominently in popular collections of local and provincial folklore, often with illustrations by acclaimed artists such as Gustaaf van de Wall Perné. Landscape features like the so-called Oaks of Wodan (Wodanseiken) – a group of five trees in the east of the country, so named by a group of landscape painters in the nearby artists’ colony of Oosterbeek – gained no significance beyond the regional level.

    Dutch interest in mythological themes became more prominent in the first half of the twentieth century, when the prominent Germanic philologist and Nazi sympathizer Jan de Vries published his influential and internationally acclaimed studies on Norse mythology and Germanic religion.

    Word Count: 1555

  • Notes:

    See also the article on Frisian mythology (fsn-6).

    Word Count: 8

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  • Direct URL:
  • Eickhoff, Martijn; De oorsprong van het «eigene»: Nederlands vroegste verleden, archeologie en nationaal-socialisme (Amsterdam: Boom, 2003).

    Halink, Simon; “Deeply Rooted in the Fatherland: Germanic Mythology and National Culture(s) in the Netherlands”, in Bønding, Sophie; Kølle Martinsen, Lone; Stahl, Pierre-Brice (eds.); Mythology and nation building in the nineteenth century: N.F.S. Grundtvig and his European contemporaries (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2021), 343-370.

    Halink, Simon; “Van «Gods vijand» tot nationaal icoon: De verbeelding van Redbad en andere «heidense helden» in vergelijkend perspectief”, De Vrije Fries, 100 (2020), 102-119.

    Woud, Auke van der; De Bataafse hut: Denken over het oudste Nederland, 1750-1850 (2nd ed.; Amsterdam: Contact, 1998).

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Halink, Simon, Poland, Stefan, 2022. "Mythology: Dutch", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 04-04-2022, consulted 08-08-2022.