The Village Where More Witches Lived Than People Without Magical Abilities
The Wonderful World of Flemish Folklore
Not far away from the Belgian city of Ypres there’s a small village called Beselare that has all the appearances of just being another, normal village where nothing unusual ever happens. There’s a town square, a flower shop, a church, a bakery and a lot of other ordinariness, but at some point you’ll start to notice some oddness with numerous references to witches scattered throughout the town. There’s a witches’ scale, a witches’ table, a witch keeping an eye on you at an intersection, a folkloric walking route that will take you to the spots where sorceresses once lived and a statue of a witch stirring with a broom in her cauldron.
If folklore is to be believed 80% of the population of Beselare must all have been witches during the 17th century. The wicked misdeeds and enchanting otherness of these remarkable characters were passed on from generation to generation and would in all probability have been lost if Belgian folk writer Edward Vermeulen (1861-1934) who is better known as Warden Oom hadn’t written them down to preserve them as well as using some of these tales to enrich his own fiction. Another reason why this town is flooded with witchlore is because during the 19th century the village was still a very remote place in comparison with other towns in maritime Flanders. People lived in a tight-knit community with not much traffic passing through.
This post will cover the stories of six witches who used to haunt the streets in what is also known as The Parish of Witches, two folktales that aren’t connected to a specific witch but transport you to that same mysterious, witchy world and one story about a giant who had the power to bring people back from the dead. Do brew yourself a nice a cup of tea since this will be a longer post than usual. Don’t add hemlock though. :-)
The most notorious and most celebrated of these witches is Sefa Bubbels. We don’t know much about her childhood but we do know that she continued to live in the parental house after her parents died until she decided to get married. It’s said that Sefa was quite happy for some time and the marriage resulted in seven children, but Sefa wouldn’t stay happy for long. Tragedy struck when plague arrived in the village and Sefa had to bury her husband and five of her children. Loss and grief weren’t the only things that made life unbearable for her, poverty was a daily battle too. Her only source of income came from selling goat’s milk, breeding rabbits and begging. Sefa became embittered and decided to live a lonely existence in her cottage, far away from other people.
Her sheltered lifestyle was exactly the reason why locals started to fear her. Whenever an unexplained misfortune or mystifying event occurred everyone was certain that Sefa had had something to do with it. Villagers went with their suspicions and complaints to the bailiff. They told him all about the sudden illnesses their horses, sheep and cows had to contend with, but the bailiff was sceptical. Because the people insisted dark magic was involved the bailiff eventually agreed to talk to Sefa who strongly denied being responsible for the bad luck of others. The bailiff was satisfied until Sefa showed up drunk as a skunk for a follow-up interrogation. He started to believe that there might be some truth in the gossip of the townsfolk.
When Sefa went home that night and presumably sobered up a bit first, she summoned an owl who notified all the witches in the vicinity that an important gathering was going to take place. Sefa and her gang of witches avenged themselves by turning the village into a spooky playground. What they exactly did is unknown, but it was a night the villagers would never forget. One strange occurrence wasn’t over yet, or the next terrifying event started to take place.
After that night of ghastly fun Sefa once again decided that her fellow townspeople weren’t worthy of her attention and she resumed her secluded life. Unfortunately, the villagers weren’t very good at leaving witches alone. They were convinced her absence meant she was up to something even more horrendous and agreed that someone should check in on her. There was only one problem: no-one dared to knock on her door. After a fierce discussion a courageous person willing to do the task finally stepped forward.
Once inside Sefa’s cottage they found her dead body. When she had died was a mystery to them all, the only clue being a half-eaten piece of mouldy bread which lay on the table. The townspeople concluded that she must have died of a stroke. In her cottage many objects that seemed to come straight out of hell were found. The most astonishing discovery were thirteen owls peacefully sleeping on the wooden beam ceiling.
How to transport Sefa’s body to the graveyard led to another fierce discussion. It was said that anyone who would undertake that task would have nothing but bad luck for the rest of their lives. Eventually someone stepped forward and offered to load her coffin on a carriage and transport her to the graveyard. You would think that no-one mourned Sefa, the villagers certainly thought so and were even more aghast when all of a sudden a great number of women wearing hooded capes that hid their faces appeared out of nowhere. They walked behind the coffin, wailed, screeched and sang laments. As you have already guessed, they were all witches.
It's said that when Sefa was six feet under a lightning strike caused her cottage to burn to the ground and her owls flew away. In all likelihood they found a new home with the witches who mourned Sefa.
Fyte’s story begins and ends with mystery. No-one knew where she came from. All of a sudden she was just there and her arrival in the village didn’t go unnoticed. She took up residence in a derelict hut near the town and at the edge of the forest during the year the plague outbreak demanded the most victims. Fyte’s abode was overgrown with herbs and plants, especially devil’s claw and annual mercury which were said to be her favourites. She earned her bread as a fortune teller which annoyed many of the locals because a lot of sinister figures knocked on Fyte’s rotten wooden door to ask for her advice and guidance. On top of that, everyone was convinced that she had made a pact with the devil in exchange for her fortune telling skills. Not much more can be said about Fyte, just as mysteriously as she had appeared, she disappeared. Her whereabouts might be a riddle but the theory is that she was a witch who loved to travel and left to practice her dark arts elsewhere. As time went on, the forest disappeared as well, but it’s said that the spot where she had once dwelled could still be seen in the early 20th century because devil’s claw and annual mercury continued to thrive.
In contrast to many of the other witch tales covered in this post Tanneke could afford bread, milk and even a trinket whenever she fancied one. She lived near a spot called Slangenmeersch which translates as snake-swamp. The place next to her was often referred to as ‘t Vergif or Poison and was avoided and feared because it was notorious for the many witch gatherings that occurred there. Both place names are quite apt for this story since Tanneke had the ability to shapeshift into a snake. According to one source her favourite pastime was to crawl through the streets in the shape of a monstrous serpent. Another reason Tanneke was viewed with suspicion wherever she went was because she always carried a box of snake ointment with her. She also filled the sheets of children with black beetles and their ears with earwigs. Ironically, Tanneke died when she was bitten by a poisonous snake, although something tells me that this ending is one this shapeshifting witch would have appreciated.
Dokke Van D’Heulebeke
Dokke was a feared palmist and fortune teller but her story only turns into a wonderfully weird one when she’s about to walk through the gates of hell. It’s said a black goat watched over her while she was on her deathbed. The goat comforted her and brought her a glass of water or kindly wiped her brow whenever she asked for it. While she was dying, all kinds of spooky and startling occurrences started to take place around her abode, and the locals only dared to go near her house when not even a whisper could be heard. Inside they discovered Dokke had left this world. Her head was turned backwards, but what was even more frightening was that the devil had concealed himself underneath her bonnet. The devil waited until he was certain everyone was looking and then flew away. That night, Dokke’s dwelling went up in smoke while her body was still inside. Until this day, no-one has ever dared to build a house on the spot where this witch had once lived.
Meele was a highly-educated and proud woman with a vast knowledge about plants, herbs and their healing properties. She used a variety of mushroom species in her potions and her business was quite successful. Her most popular potion was one which used spindle tree as its main ingredient and ensured that sick goats wouldn’t die. Despite being one of the best healers one could find, Meele liked to swindle every now and then too by adding an ingredient that would only make matters worse. Apparently, it made her chuckle, but the locals didn’t appreciate her chuckling very much and were furious when too many goats died at once. Not long after, Meele left this world too. The villagers decided to burn down her house and mushroom garden because they believed that this was the only way to ensure that witchcraft would never return to their town, but this is Beselare, and the witches didn’t have plans to leave any time soon.
Clette ‘T Aendegat
Clette was abandoned as a baby and found in a dyke. It’s said she had hands that looked like hammers and thought herself to be the most beautiful woman to walk this earth. To be honest, having hands like hammers is quite extraordinary and therefore ‘being the most beautiful’ is a very reasonable claim to make. Clette wandered around begging and especially wanted leftover pieces of bread which she gave to the rabbits she carried around in a basket. The rabbits were just as special as Clette herself since they had not two, but three ears. People always gave her what she wanted because they knew if they didn’t, Clette would find an original and painful way to punish them for their greed. She also carried a bottle of magic potion with her and if she sprinkled the liquid on someone, much harm would come to them. One way in which the locals protected themselves against her was by scattering salt on the threshold or putting a paschal candle on the windowsill.
These are just a couple of the folkloric witches who made sure the locals of this small town weren’t living a boring life during the 17th century. The fact that so many memorable characters once roamed those streets also means that the village has quite a lot of witchy folktales. Two of them follow here and one story about a giant who knew a thing or two about the dark arts as well.
The Witch Candle
The story goes that a man who had been working late walked home through the pitch-black night. It was to be a long walk since the wind was blowing so fiercely he barely made any progress. Suddenly, he noticed a strange light in the far distance. What even made this odder was that he knew all the lanterns should have been extinguished at this late hour. When he came closer he saw that it was a candle and what made this even more puzzling was that the flame didn’t move at all despite the stormy weather. When he was only two steps away from the candle it vanished. The man ran home as fast as he could and told his wife all about what had happened. She shrugged her shoulders. The cottage in front of which the candle had appeared belonged to just another witch. As far as his wife was concerned it wasn’t that remarkable at all. It was widely known that the witch who lived there owned an extensive collection of grimoires and only left her home during the witching time of night.
The Giant who Brought Back the Dead
Besides witches, a giant was known to torment the villagers as well. According to this tale a baker walked home one night after gulping down a beer too many. He crossed paths with an unnaturally tall man whose face was hidden underneath a hood. When the baker said ‘good night’ and the mysterious figure didn’t respond the baker must have thought him terribly rude, but he would soon regret his own politeness. The giant looked deeply into the man’s eyes until it felt the baker’s feet were being nailed to the ground and he became paralysed with fear.
Another story says this same giant was capable of taming wild dogs by grabbing their tails and swinging them around. It was also said he brought his wife back from the grave. She had hidden a chest of money in the cowshed and the giant wasn’t pleased at all that she had the audacity to leave this world without telling him where it was. The night she was resurrected all the cows in the village jumped and danced in terror.
The Cat Pit
According to this tale hundreds of cats would gather around a pit at the edge of the town every night to screech, hiss and snarl. They composed the most horrible music imaginable. People who lived in the vicinity of the pit could never sleep and if they ventured outside during the hours the world is at its darkest, they walked around as if they were ghosts themselves. Some even claimed that the whole area was cursed.
One night a group of boys decided to put a stop to this. If only they had listened to the folktales they would have known their plan was beyond foolish, but they didn’t. The group went to the pit while the cats were feasting and threw sticks, branches and stones at the cats. The felines thought it was quite amusing. They knew nothing could harm them, let alone a group of school boys and quickly chased them away. Those who had tried to attack the cats soon regretted it. They all climbed into bed with a fever and couldn’t stop shaking uncontrollably out of fear for days.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the best of endings for the cats either. The priest had heard what had happened and decided to leave the missal, a book containing instructions and texts for the celebration of Mass, open. Because he didn’t close the book the witches attending church were petrified and unable to leave. When he finally closed the book they sprinted out of the church. Now that everyone knew who they were, the shapeshifting cats continued to gather around the pit but respected the villagers desire for peace and quiet and did so silently.
These are just some of the tales that have been told in the village. Beselare hasn’t forgotten these stories either. Every two years a witches’ parade moves through the city.
Ko-fi Memberships & Lawbreakers in the Folklore of Flanders
If you love what I do and are able to you can from now on join a membership on Ko-fi. There are several tiers all named after one of my favourite beings in Flemish Folklore: Kludde. Each tier comes with its own membership benefits. I’m currently working on writing content to publish over there and hope to add a lot more during the coming months. Anything you can do to help support me truly makes a difference and is appreciated so much. You can find the page here.
I’m also delighted to have an essay about rulebreakers in Flemish Folklore published in one of my favourite magazines: The Seelie Crow! The essay includes a terrifying sea tale and the story of a witch and gang leader whose grave eventually became a tree. These folktales can be read in issue 4 of The Seelie Crow.
Thank you so much for reading this post! I hope you enjoyed these witchy tales. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments and I would love to know who your favourite witch is!
I suppose I will have to visit!