Mysterious Flanders: A castration and a cautionary tale

Summary

As Flanders Today goes looking for the region’s dark past in a series of little-known and long-forgotten folk tales, we find a fertility statue that’s lost its manhood and a ferryman who was punished for his greed

Legends of Antwerp

Het Steen on the bank of the river Scheldt in Antwerp is a popular tourist destination. The building was part of a larger castle complex, most of which was demolished in 1880. Today, Het Steen still offers a beautiful view over the river. Few visitors, though, will look up as they enter to see a heavily weathered relief above the gate.

The stone image (pictured), called Semini, has a particularly interesting story to tell. Once the statue had a huge phallus, and he was worshiped as a fertility symbol. Young women from Antwerp came to gaze up at him, hoping to conceive.

The pagan custom – and of course the large phallus – were a thorn in the side of the church. In 1587, the Jesuits, fed up with this immoral display, cut off Semini’s masculinity.

Another story says it wasn’t the Jesuits but the women of Antwerp who castrated the little figure, grinding the stone phallus to make fertility potions. However, very few historical traces were left behind to back up either story.

Semini has become part of Antwerp folklore, living on in songs and proverbs, and in 1985 the fertility cult was restored by the Antwerp Semini Association. On the first Saturday of spring, they bake “fertility cakes” and distribute them to newly married couples.

Roman or Celtic?

But where did this curious figure really come from? There are two contradictory explanations. During the Renaissance, historians thought the statue represented the Roman fertility god Priapus. At the time it was customary to trace back everything to classical antiquity.

Later, during the Romantic era of the 19th century, a very different explanation surfaced. Semini was not a Roman, but a Celtic or Norse fertility statue, meaning the fertility cult would have pre-Christian origins.

Neither of the theories has any serious grounds, though. The stories about the relief's origin are what historians call invented traditions: clarifications about things that are sought in the past, but that actually say more about the era in which they’re formulated. During the Renaissance, the Classical period was popular, then came the popularity of the Celtic and Germanic traditions.

Invented traditions take on a life of their own in the collective memory and become genuine traditions. So Semini lives on in Antwerp, even without his phallus.

Lessons learned

Also on the banks of the Scheldt, a few kilometres away, lies the community of Hemiksem, famous for its huge abbey. The complex belonged to the Cistercian Order but now serves as an administrative centre.

The first stone was laid back in 1243. The monks brought prosperity to the region and laid the foundations for the brick industry. But the French Revolution led to their downfall. The French invaders in the late 18th century were strongly anti-clerical and pillaged Flanders’ churches and abbeys, including the abbey in Hemiksem. 

At the last second the burden of heavy cases dragged him into the water, never to surface again

In November of 1794, the French were closing in, but the monks were prepared. All their valuables were already packed, ready to flee. The plan was to escape on the Scheldt with three boats full of gold and gems.

But that evening saw a violent storm, and the river was turbulent. A sudden gust of wind capsized one of the boats. By chance, the local ferryman was still on duty, and he managed to get a few people on board, including the abbot, and saved them from drowning. Despite this rescue, the abbot died, and with his last breath, he told the ferryman the story.

The ferryman couldn’t forget the treasure at the bottom of the Scheldt. A few days later he decided, at low tide, to go in search of the cases full of gold. Before he could start, the abbot appeared in his dream to warn him of his greed, but the ferryman ignored him.

And indeed, he found where the caskets were submerged. He tried to recover them with ropes, but at the last second the burden of heavy cases dragged him into the water, never to surface again.

Later, many fishermen would claim to hear his plaintive cries during stormy weather, begging to be delivered from the gold that chained him forever to the bottom of the Scheldt. The legend of the Black Ferryman was born.

Photo: Toon Lambrechts

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