The Nikker, the Sint and the Sea Devil


The Nikker, the Sint and the Sea Devil

The other day I started researching my Zeeland origins. And especially the Zeelandic faith before the arrival of Christianity. My mother was the province Zeeland and I was curious about the knowledge and customs of the former Zeeuwen. And I found these ways.

In many different cultures there are stories of a kingdom in the sea. For example, the Bible speaks of a kingdom deep in the sea, which in the end of time will be destroyed by the Hebrew God. As punishment for deception and malice against the people. For example, the Philistines worshipped the god Dagon, who was human at the top and fish at the bottom (merman).

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There are regular news reports from African countries that mermaids cause the necessary problems. There are also whole tribes who worship the water goddess Mami Wata. This is a water Goddess who is worshiped in many places, in various forms. This water gods worship can also be found in places like Suriname, Cuba and Brazil. Scottish and Irish stories also write about mermaids and water spirits. Which even occurred between humans and mermaids.

Because of this I was curious if these stories were also found in the Netherlands and especially Zeeland. The Zeeuwen were sea people and I'm sure they had a different faith and knowledge. Especially before the arrival of Christianity. It's interesting that the same kind of stories appear all over the world, while they lived in completely different places.

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My mother used to tell a story that two mermaids warned fishermen. Namely that Middelburg would disappear into the sea by a flood. The warning allowed the Middle-citizens to protect themselves and saved them from death. When my mother was a little girl they said to her, “Be careful not to get too close to the ditch, otherwise Oosje Dick will pull you into the water” or “Be careful not to pull you into the water barrel”. My mother always thought they said this because you wouldn't get too close to the water. But what if the former Zeeuwen had a different acquaintance? An acquaintance that may have been lost over time.

So I went out to investigate. First I found a “Zeeuwsch Sagenboek” from 1933 in an antique shop. And the first bundle of chapters is called “The Demons of Four Elements.” Here, among other things, stories about mermaids and sea spirits are described. But also how the Zeeuwen lived with these spirits.

“To the sea spirits one must sacrifice. When a sailor dies on board, the crew slips his corpse and all his belongings overboard. When they don't, there was definitely bad luck. If there is a heavy weather, not all that belonged to the dead had been sacrificed to the sea spirits.”

The story of Westenschouwen tells that the fishermen had caught a mermaid in their net. The mermaid cried to release her, otherwise they would regret it. One of the fishermen cried, “Having is having, and getting is an art”. They did not return the mermaid, and judgment was brought by the mermaid on Westenschouwen. Westenschouwen was flooded with sand and the people had to flee. Only the tower remained. The mermaid and merman are still depicted in the coat of arms of Schouwen-Duiveland. There are several stories about mermaids judgment, which flooded the towns of Zeeland.

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Often fishermen had trouble getting back on land because a sea spirit did not leave them alone. One of the fishermen came up with the idea of returning their first caught fish to these sea spirits as a sacrifice. As a result, the sea spirit left them alone and they could safely go home. From this moment on, all fishermen returned their first caught fish to the water spirit.

These sea spirits or water spirits are called Nekkers. The Nekker was an evil water spirit and knew many different names in the different towns of Zeeland. On island Tholen this was Oosje Pik (Oesje Pik or Jeoosje Pik). Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren knew him as Jan Haak. In other places they called him Pietjen Haak, Piet den Haak or den Akkervent. Then you got Glup Guy, this one pulls the kids into the water by their legs. In the rain barrel is Piet den Duvel. He's lurking for children he could drown.

When I was a little girl, I took my mother's shopping list to our butcher. I walked down a little alley where a boy ran to meet me. “Black nikker” he said to me. I didn't know what it meant, but from the word black and the angry way he spoke, I knew this wasn't a positive thing.

The word Nikker is the same as the word Nekker and only later became a swear word for people with dark skin color. The English form is the word Nigger. And all stand for sea devil.

In the “Torch der Nederduitsche Tale” from 1722 it says:

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“Nigger is a name which is given to the devil, and is deformed from the Latin niger the black, as is called the black Negroes. In particular, necker in the old language was a water devil. To be wrecked is like being begusted and enchanted. So they call devil art, magic, black art. But that is from a misunderstanding of... nekormanteia (necromancy), as if the nigromantia, since it means a dissent from the dead. The Nigger is Heintje Pik's own brother, because they are both similar after Morians, or blackmakers.”

Necromancer or in Dutch, a ghost charmer, is a magician who does magic concerning the dead, demons and devils. It tries to take control of demons and devils and needs many years of complex studies to master all rituals and symbols. Where the witch was seen as an instrument of the devil, the necromancer was seen as a master of devils.

Before the arrival of Christianity, domestic spirits were seen in Zeeland as helpful servants, who took care of the family in case of danger and helped in the household. Perhaps some Zeeuwen remember the witch dolls on a broom that hung in many grandma or aunt's houses. This might be a reference to this. My grandmother and aunt had one in the house too. Though they didn't knew the meaning of it anymore.

The following names were also house spirits and later changed with Christianity to  devils. The names were Joost, Zwarte Piet, Oude Joost, Oude Jochem, Hansneef, Hansmichel, Joris op de Stelten, Heintje Pik, Uncle Hendrik, Hein and Heintjeman.

One well-known name we have just come across is Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). This was originally a Nekker, or Sea devil. And like Heintje Dick, both looked like Moors. In other words, they had a black face according to description. Later this name was only used as a nickname for people with black skin color, including the word Nigger.

This is how the book “The Witchcraft Collection Volume One: Dictionary of Satanism, Dictionary of Witchcraft, and Dictionary of Pagan Religions” describes:

“Nekker (Nigger) A Germanic aquatic spirit whose appearance was associated with death or drowning by sailors. Nekker as a culture god survives both as Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), the sacrificial deity who loves children, and as the old Nick, the harbinger of disaster and bearer of souls into the future world.”

When celebrating the Dutch Saint Nicholas festival, Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) was described in his original role as Nekker? Would this also mean that Saint Nicholas and Black Pete used to belong to a Dutch religion?

When I was a little girl in a Christian reformed elementary school. Where most families, for religious  reasons, didn't have TV in the house. Saint Nicholas was therefore forbidden to celebrate at school. We always thought it was because the Saint had something to do with the Catholic faith. And that's why it was forbidden. But now I think these church people, perhaps after all, hadn't forgotten the origins of this feast. Or at least its ban.

All over the world you encounter remains of pagan cultures and beliefs that existed before Christianity. But partially never completely disappeared. With the advent of Christianity, many people, often forcessed, had to give up their own faith. Also in the Netherlands, where many of these house spirits that were part of people's culture and way of life. Often you can see that many of these old beliefs lived on in a different way, because they often did not wanted to say goodbye to them at all. Who knows why so many people love their Black Pete, who is  part of their family spirit and that is in danger because of the Black Pete discussion. Or maybe Black Pete is happy to come into people's homes every year and be celebrated. It is interesting to see if the Saint Nicholas feast is part of a faith that existed before Christianity.

Saint Nicholas died on 6 December 342 and his fame spread throughout Roman Christianity. In Myra and Constantinople he was revered from the 6th century. After that, his worship was spread throughout the Greek and Russian church. In the 9th century Saint Nicholas was worshipped in Rome and Italy. From the 10th century in Germany, England and France. Then spread his worship in the north of Europe.

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The Netherlands got to know Sint Nicholas mainly through trade contacts with Spain. Saint Nicholas became a popular saint, of hell and the sea, schoolchildren, children, skippers, prisoners, hookers and lawyers. In a marriage, he was also summoned. And churches were built for him in every place. He became the saint of Russia and Greece and dozens of port cities such as Amsterdam. When the worship of Saint Nicholas penetrated our regions, the habit of life was still strongly determined by the ancient Germanic gods. It is therefore understandable that the image we now have of Saint Nicholas is mixed with these gods.

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Wodan was the most important Germanic god to be worshiped. A god of war and death. He brought the souls of the deceased with his horse to the underworld. Wodan had an eight-legged horse Sleipnir and was assisted by demons. 2 demons, Hugin (the thought) and Munin (memory). They informed him of what the people of the earth were doing. Wodan was also accompanied by the rhyme giant Nörwi. This Nörwi was black in color and had a rod.

Wodan can be traced further back to ancient Babylon. Only he was known by other names. In Scandinavia, his name is Odin. In Babylon we meet him under the names Adon, Adonis or Nimrod. Another name in Babylon for Wodan is Baäl or Baäl Moloch: a biblical god to which children were sacrificed. Also seen as the god of the dead.

The worship of Wodan and the celebration of Saint Nicholas have many similarities. Even though at this time people are unaware of what old customs and beliefs are associated with the feast. This does mean that a piece of awareness of our history is important, and a tradition is not something that has automatically always been a tradition . So there could be so much more to it.

The worship of Wodan and the celebration of Saint Nicholas have many similarities. Even though at this time people are unaware of what old customs and beliefs are associated with the feast. That does not mean that a piece of awareness of our history is important, and a tradition is not something that is self-evident. So there could be so much more to it.

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Before this text evokes a discussion about whether or not to have a Black Pete in black face when celebrated. Which is not the purpose of this blog. This text was meant to inform about former Zeeland and Dutch beliefs. And the meaning of words whose true meaning we have lost. But ultimately have a completely different historical meaning. At the bottom of the text I will list the sources for people who find this interesting.

What I wanted to say about my own piece of Black Pete. And that is that I have never experienced Black Pete personally as racism or seen as a caricature of a dark person. And my father, who was of Surinamese descent, never said anything about it either. Even though we weren't allowed to celebrate at school. We celebrated the Saint Nicholas entry and present giving evenings as a family. Until I found the drawings that I had made for Saint Nicholas and Black Pete that year before. Drawings I put all my childlike love in. I was very upset to hear that my parents had thrown away all my drawings from previous years. Juvenile trauma, you don't want to know.

But the difference with me and other people who do take offense with Black Pete is that I have never been identified with Black Pete in my life. No one called me Black Pete. So I had no association with that either. And that's a difference. For many, this Dutch celebration is a wonderful childhood memory, for another's it is a memory of harassment. And if it had been celebrated at my school, I might have been called Black Pete. I've been identified enough with other things, with a dirty black nigger, monkey, negro. Which influenced me so much that I didn't get into the sun until I was 16, because I was afraid of getting too brown. And even took a relationship with someone with very racist beliefs, hoping to be accepted.

But what I want to say to people who have been identified as a small child with Zwarte Piet, and are still confronted with this image. And people's intent to make you feel less than a human. Ask yourself, with what image I still identify myself, which is imposed by another. And that you, by being a child and developing your identity, accepted as truth. Or that you felt less valuable than the person who wants to hurt you. (This actually applies to anyone who has been bullied and who has been denounced by a false identity.)

Unfortunately, we cannot heal our wounds by giving someone else the responsibility for our pain. Even if that person participates in that. Because people who want you on your knees so they can stand above you themselves always find a reason. Because even if you take away what you don't want others to identify you, that pain does not go away. So ask yourself what else am I identifying with? What did someone else put on me? Reject this identity. This isn't yours.

If someone would call me Black Pete, I would reject that. And say, “I do NOT accept the identity you want to put on me.” And leave that energy with the other. I had an incident a year ago where I was alone in a train coupe and three boys sad close to me. One said, “I'm not gonna sit close to a black person.” And then he spent his entire journey making monkeys sounds to me. I was angry, of course, but more because I was on my own and they were with the three of them. And I didn't know how to react cause I was outnumbered. And, of course, it's normal for you to be sad, because someone deliberately wants to hurt you. But please do not identify with an image that is wrongly placed on you to make you feel less.





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