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The Black Lady of Staveren - a Ghost's Story

Updated on December 12, 2016
Eva Weggelaar profile image

Eva Weggelaar is a writer and translator, especially interested in poetry and folklore. She also runs her own blog: Paradise is this Way.

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The Peacock Castle

It was a cold evening in late autumn. In the sky, which looked like a rough green sea, strange dark cloud-ships of miraculous shapes sailed past. A restless green twilight hovered around the Peacock Castle1 of Staveren and led its dark uncertainty around the walls and towers.
Between two shorts gusts of wind the frightened scream of a white peacock was carried into the woods. The keeper at the gate sat dozing, contemplating unseen things, when he heard a shy knock on the gate.
The keeper slowly shuffled towards the peephole and saw a young woman, completely dressed in black, who begged to be admitted to the mistress of the castle. When the door opened, the hesitant twilight crept inside with her. After the keeper had led her into a small room, she sank down on a bench, weakened by fatigue and exhaustion, and began to cry. The sound of the keeper’s footsteps was lost in the corridors.

Eleonora's Tale

The wife of the Duke of Reinold opened the door and halted speechless on the threshold, not knowing what this visit might mean, until the unhappy woman raised her head in appeal and she recognised her god- and foster child.
Approaching, she asked hesitantly ‘Child, what has happened to you, that you should come to me in such a condition?’
‘O mother,’ the unhappy Eleonara cried softly. ‘Alas! My own mother was a stranger to me. I have come to beg you for refuge.’
‘Child,’ said the mistress of the castle, while she too began to cry and kissed Eleonora, ‘you don’t have to beg for that. My house is always open to you, no matter how many years have passed since we last saw each other.’

While a servant silently placed an iron chandelier, bearing two candles, on the table, the uncertain twilight withdrew.
‘Tell me the cause of this great sadness, you frighten me,’ spoke the Duchess.
Softly Eleonora poured out her grief at the breast of her foster mother.

‘You know,’ she cried, ‘how my parents objected to my engagement to Sir Herman, and how they forced the hated Zweder on me. At my mother’s deathbed I had to promise to marry that cruel man and to my great sadness I became engaged to him, but my sad heart always belonged to Sir Herman. Time and time again I delayed my marriage to Zweder, hoping a happier day might dawn for me. I lay awake crying for many a night. Always I expected to see Herman return. Oh, I would have left to search for him, had I known which way to go.
By this time, the delay began to bother Zweder and he sent a gang led by Diebald to claim me and the Wildenborch. He wanted Wildenborch more than he ever wanted me, I knew that much.
Diebald laid siege to the castle and our men bravely defended it; but eventually, we would have had to surrender as we exhausted our food stocks.
It happened one morning, while I was praying to Dear Jesus for a solution, that my prayer was rudely disturbed by a great and terrible noise. Many thoughts raced through my mind.

Thus I hurried to the inner courtyard and to my shock saw a heavily armoured knight with a small following.
I thought it was Zweder who had already conquered the castle. I moved towards him and in trepidation fell at his feet. “Lord,” I said, “take the castle and me, but I pray to you, spare my brave men.”
“By all Saints, so it shall be,” I heard him answer. But you will understand how great my joy was when that stout knight raised his visor and I recognised my Herman.
With his small cavalry he had driven away Diebald and his men and relieved us. Cheering, my men carried him into the hall. That was an unforgettable day.
I sent you a messenger from whom you must have heard that Herman and I married soon after.

My damaged castle and my exhausted servants did not make for an extremely cheerful time, so the feast was more homely. Perhaps you have blamed me for not inviting you. I swear, had I invited anyone, it would have been you, but what kind of feast can one give in a ruin with an empty storage cupboard?

Nevertheless, we were very happy. Sadly, it wouldn’t last long. Last week Herman went out to hunt, taking only a few of his pages. I sat through the noon-meal. It got so late, so terribly late. My heart had known of some fearful thing all that day, and when he did not come home when he said he would, I felt something terrible must have happened.’
Eleonora burst out in tears so suddenly that it took some time before she was able to continue. When she finished crying she went on: ‘In the evening I saw the torches approach through the dark. They carried him on a litter of branches. A band of murderers, secretly led by Zweder, had unexpectedly ambushed them in the forest and pierced Herman with an arrow from behind. He was alive when I took him in my arms; he murmured my name as a last farewell...and died. I appear to have been born under a very unlucky star. My life has passed in misery and I feel that this final blow has been too much for my tortured heart.

The following day, Zweder had already arrived at the gate to claim Wildenborch. What did I care about my life or my castle? My grief was too great.
The castle, not quite repaired yet after the last siege, couldn’t have held them off for long anyway. Zweder was announced lord and master. That same evening he had my dear Herman buried. I had to follow the procession on horseback.
But by the time they were preparing to return home, my heart was filled with so much resistance against the bully, that I jumped off my horse, quickly grabbed a handful of sand from Herman’s grave and hurriedly made my way here.
For days, I roamed across the heath through the rain and cold. I prayed to the good God to help me find a safe refuge with you... Oh, it would’ve been better if I’d died. I can’t bear life anymore. It’s worse than death.’
With that, she ended her sad story.
The kind Duchess was unable to comfort her.

Gust. van de Wall Perné, illustration for the Edda
Gust. van de Wall Perné, illustration for the Edda

The Black Lady

Eleonora spent the last days of her life at Staveren’s Castle; there weren’t many. Her young life had been too badly destroyed and she soon wasted away, until one grey morning they dug her a silent grave beneath the old trees behind the castle. That place is still called Eleonora’s Poll.
Many people have seen her ghost at night, haunting the castle or taking sand from Herman’s grave. And whoever meets the dark lady of Staveren, trailing her weeds through the night, will step aside, fearful and deeply moved, to let her pass.

From Legends of the Veluwe/Veluwsche Sagen by Gust van de Wall Perné, published in 1910-1912 by Scheltens & Giltay and translated by Eva Weggelaar

The current Castle Staverden
The current Castle Staverden | Source

Footnotes

1. For as long as Dukes ruled Gelder, white peacocks were kept at the Castle Staveren, their feathers used to adorn the helmets of the Dukes.
The old name ‘Staveren’ has deliberately been used in this book instead of the current name ‘Staverden’. We can trace this name as far back as 1046, in the name of Steverewold. This forest got its name from the god Stavo, because it was, in ancient times, held as sacred and dedicated to that god (see below).
Stavo is now known as a guardian of travellers. He was depicted with a staff in his hand and may have been the wandering Odin/Wodan in one of his many guises, though most sources associate him with Thor/Thunar. After the advent of Christianity a chapel was built where they had once served Stavo. The old chapel did not stand where the current one is, but, according to folklore, quite near it, where we now find a meadow.
Very peculiar is the shared origin of the place names of Staveren, the Frisian Stavoren, the German Stavenhagen, and the Norwegian Stavanger. The Frisian King Redbald II apparently tried to revive the cult of Stavo in the 9th century, and there was a stone image of him, sitting down, at the temple in Stavoren.
There are many other important place names in the Veluwe. To mention another one, the Ullerberg (Uller-mountain) near Ermelo and the Ullerbosch (Uller-forest) must be connected to Uller, stepson of the Thunder god. This mountain was called Ullerberg in all the old books and maps I’ve read. Only later was the name changed to Ullen-mountain, Ulen-mountain, and even Uilen-mountain (uil meaning owl). It is so sad to see how these old names are being lost. They could, after careful scientific research of the area, explain much about the oldest history of our country. To thoroughly clarify several customs, sagas, names etc. known in the Eastern part of our country, a comparative study ought to be made between related German, Danish, and Scandinavian peoples, who have retained more knowledge of these affairs.

Additional speculation by fellow amateur-folklorist, -linguist and -historian Michael Woods

‘I have not heard of "Stavo" but some of the old gods were sometimes given also nicknames by various ancient Germanic peoples, a not uncommon one for Woden (or in their case Oďinn) in old Norse/Norske i.e. Northern Germanic in Scandinavia being "Grimr" or "Grimm"; Balder was known in Alt Hoch Deutsch also as Pohl, etc. Articles that mention Stavo seem unclear whether this refers to Woden or Þunor, although I feel inclined to go with the latter. It sounds as if it could be a form of Gustav or else a possible if unlikely borrowing from the name of a Slavic weather god, Svantovit. I do not think that we used the name in Old Anglo-Saxon English, but each of our Germanic peoples had their own sometimes slightly different names and nicknames for the gods. For example, in England (although more in the south) we used to speak of Seaxneat, or Sahsnot in Old Saxon back on the continent, who could be seen as a spirit or companion of the sword in his own right but otherwise as an epithet of Tiw, our war god.

King Redbald II of the Frisians tried to uphold and encourage the old religion since he saw Christianity as being a tool of control by the Holy Roman Empire, much as it had already been used among and against their neighbours the Saxons (those who had stayed on the continent rather than coming hither) and he wanted to hold this off among his own people. I wonder whether references to temples to Stavo could be a later misunderstanding of the records and literature which we still have. Redbald encouraged the keeping of the old ways and, to help in this, he might have encouraged also the keeping of any of their old temples. In early days many such temples across a number of Germanic lands bordering the North and Baltic seas may well have been built in a way still kept for their early churches, although surviving examples are now confined mostly to Norway. This kind of very old church is called a stavekirk, or "stave church", since it was originally built with long wooden staves. I just wonder whether an old temple might not have been named likewise as a stave temple. [In Anglo-Saxon one might have called it something like a "stavanheargh" - not unlike the Stavenhagen in north eastern Deutschland mentioned above. The town of Harrow, former Saxon (then later Mercian and therefore Anglian) subkingdom of Middlesex, was in those days called "Gummeningas Heargh", meaning the Temple of folk known as the Gummenings, who may once have been followers and allies of a leader or chief known as Gumman. Today we call the place only by the second part of the name, our old Anglo-Saxon word for a temple, "heargh", which we now soften to "Harrow". In other words such a thing may not have been a temple to a god called Stavo...so much as a temple built with staves. Some of these very old churches still bear carved wooden panels showing characters and scenes from the old heathen traditions.

We are fairly sure that some of our earliest churches were sometimes built somewhat like this but that maybe with some more direct influence from the church in Rome - and with plenty of reusable masonry left lying around parts of Britain from the Roman imperial period before our first English forebears really began to arrive and settle - there seems to have been an increasing tendency to build them in stone or rebuild them in stone. Amazingly, however, there are one or two, most of all a small church in Essex, which - although partly rebuilt - do still show some signs that they probably started off in something like this form. This whole subject has reminded me also that there has been some curiosity about another church or two here in England named "St. Bee", since any such saint is not well known. One theory has been that such a church may have begun as an Anglo-Saxon temple known as one where to swear an oath. This was once done while holding or placing one's hand on a very large solid gold ring (yes; and people wonder whence Tolkien got this stuff!). In Old English one name for such a ring was a "beah" - hence the place may have been known as a Church of (a/the) Beah, or Church of Bee...

I have found what may be at least something of a parallel with King Redbald II's resistance against Christianity. King Athanaric of the Thervings (Thervingians/Tervingi), a branch of the Goths who had moved down into south eastern Europe, also wanted to stop his people and other Goths being taken into Christianity, again to preserve his people. Some prisoners whom they had taken in war against Roman forces were Christian and some of his people had begun to take up Christianity from them. He therefore outlawed it and even began a campaign of persecution of those who had converted. He did not persecute people of other nations for this (he really could not have cared less what they followed): He only persecuted those of his Therving people and other fellow Goths who had taken it up. He clearly viewed it as a serious threat to the survival of his people. Redbald may not have used the same tactic but likewise clearly thought it important that his people should not be taken into "Roman ways" and influence, hence his campaign in favour of the old gods and their longstanding modes of worshipping and honouring them - including their old temples.’

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      Bill Giotis 11 months ago

      Another excellent piece of writing.

      Well done.