When the Gate of Hell opened at the Golden Necklace
When you enter by car the province of Friesland from the west via the Afsluitdijk ‘closure dyke’ and continue on the A7 Hwy, you will pass a viaduct carrying the name Okkehel. Is your destination the port of Harlingen, also in the area, you might spot in its harbor bright green sloops of the sloop-rowing club Okke Hel. In this post we will explore the legend of the skipper named Ocke, later written as Okke, who lived about a thousand years ago in this wet corner of the world. And do let us pray that it is just a legend! Otherwise, hiking the 15-kilometer-long circular dyke path Pingjumer Gulden Halsband ‘Pingjum golden necklace’ could turn out to be a very risky and dangerous undertaking.
A thousand years ago, there lived a skipper named Ocke. He was born in the village of Pingjum. Ocke was a good and brave skipper. His posture and strength were no less than the famous Grutte Pier 'Great Pier' centuries later. Ocke was a rough personality too. Someone who liked his mug of beer. More worrisome, though, was that he was a heathen. Despite most Frisians already having embraced Christendom as their new religion, Ocke’s heart was still with Wodan.
One day, Ocke sailed from the town of Bolswerd on the shores of the (former) Middelzee ‘middle sea’ via Pingjum to sea channel Vlie. A sea inlet used to connect Pingjum with the Zuiderzee ‘southern sea’ and sea channel Vlie. His ship was loaded with grain. When Ocke's ship was near the village of Witmarsum, the wind turned to the grim north and became a severe storm. His crew was terrified, and they experienced many hazardous moments. Luckily, the storm decreased after a while. This made Ocke’s men cheerfully say: “Nou sil it mei Gods help wol gean” (‘from now on, with God’s help, it should be fine’). When Ocke heard this, he got furious. From behind the helm, he yelled at his men:
“God is dea en kâld! Wat soe hy? ‘t Sil sûnder Him!”
‘God is dead and cold. What would he? It must be without him’
His words were a blasphemy of the first degree and could not go unpunished. Even in the nineteenth century when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps inspired by skipper Ocke, wrote “Gott ist tot“ (‘God is dead’), or when TIME magazine printed in the year 1966 on its cover the question “Is God dead?”, the allegedly modern world was outraged and in shock. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that as soon as Ocke had spoken these terrible words first a thousand years earlier, an enormous wave rolled towards the ship. It threw Ocke overboard. Immediately, a bolt of lightning struck Ocke and opened the abyss. Ocke, his ship and crew were swallowed by the salty scum and taken to its dark depths. For all eternity.
Centuries later, many inlet seas in the province of Friesland silted up and were turned into arable land. Where once the wild sea reigned, grasslands and buttercups had taken over. For long, a wooden pole protruded above the lush grass. It was the tip of the mast of Ocke’s ship, and the fields were called Ocke Hel or Okkehel. It is low-laying land, submerged during winter and filled with reeds and singing birds during summer. Unfortunately, the exact spot of the ship is no longer known. Cows used the tip of the mast to rub their body and skin against. Until it broke off. No farmer ever bordered to mark the spot.
To find the fields where the spectacular ordeal took place, leave the village of Witmarsum in south-western direction via Koudehuisterdijk Rd. Actually, this backroad is an old dyke and part of the circular dyke-system Pingjumer Gulden Halsband. Follow the road until you reach the hamlet of Koudehuizum which is not much more than a farmstead. South, towards the hamlet of Harkezijl and the terp village of Schraard, the landscape is a maze of medieval plots of lands with remnants of medieval dykes like Marnedijk, Kattendijk and Schraarderhemdijk. Latter is locally also known as Grienedyk 'green/young dyke' (Kartskarel 2006). When looking into south-western direction, you can see at a distance of about 1.5 kilometers the viaduct named Okkehel too, as we mentioned at the beginning of this post. This wider area is where once the abyss opened during a foul storm with thunder and lightening.
What the hel?
The whole story explains why the fields near Koudehuizum carry the name Ocke or Okke, but it does not explain why it is called hel too. What is meant by the word hel anyway?
The word hel, helle, hol or hool can (also) be found in many toponyms in province Friesland. Think of Hel, Lytse Hel, Hoalle Poarte, Hollepoartepoel, De Reade Hel, Reahel, Rohel, Helsdoar, Heldoar, Helbird, Skraeder Hol (near Okkehel), Hollegreft etc.. But also Hellum in province Groningen or Hellevoetsluis in province Zuid Holland. Many of the toponyms, sometimes names of old farmsteads, are related to wet areas, ponds, (little) lakes and former kolks (Winkler 1894). The narrow sea strait between the island Texel and the mainland giving access to the Wadden Sea from the North Sea, today called Marsdiep, used to be called Helle Dore or Helsdeur 'hel's door'. A pumping station in Den Helder, the marine town at Marsdiep, carries the name De Helsdeur as a reminder. It is in service since 1973. The etymology of the town of Den Helder itself, however, is unsure (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018) but we think it might be related to a hel as well.
Origin of the word hel is probably Celtic and thus very old. Dating back to at least the Late Iron Age. It means something like ‘low lands’, ‘hollow’ or ‘swamps’. In British-Celtic it has the same meaning (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018, Clerinx 2023). Other toponyms in the Netherlands, which is mere a selection, related to low-lying lands or swamps are: Helbergen, Helbroek, Hellebroek, Hell, Helle, Hellegat, Hellendoorn, Helleneind, Hellouw, and Helmond. A different explanation is that the word hel is related to the (Welsh) Celtic word halein meaning ‘salt’ and hali meaning ‘sea’ (Kerkhof 2016).
In the old Germanic tradition, Hell is the underworld. The word might stem from the Proto-Germanic word haljō, the Gothic word halja and the Old Frisian word helle meaning something like ‘concealed place’. Think also of Old English helan meaning ‘to cover/hide’. And who has not heard the fairytale of Frau Holle or Mother Holle, a figure representing the pre-Germanic goddess associated with life and death. A creature connected with the underworld.
Taking these Celtic and Germanic similar explanations into consideration, a hel or hell is a place where evil spirits and souls stayed. A dark, cold and wet world. Like vortexes, kolks, sea straits, and deep ponds and pits. Places that were dangerous when the wetter was bad, misty and when it stormed. Wet places that gave access to the other world, to the underworld. Indeed, places where the gate or doors of Hell could open (Winkler 1894). A wormhole connecting spaces and dimensions.
Interestingly, this description is comparable with the medieval and early-modern concept of so-called border lands. Places of twilight where werewolves, warcs, Grendel-like monsters and outlaws (i.e. those who had received the so-called 'punishment of the wolf') lived. See for more about border lands our post Who’s afraid of Veracious Woolf?
The area of Okkehel is considered a former kolk or sea inlet. Hence a place connected to the underworld, and thus where the Gate of Hell was located (and -who knows- is located?).
Pingjumer Gulden Halsband
The dyke-system Pingjumer Gulden Halsband 'Pingjum golden necklace' is a so-called binnenringdijk, meaning a dyke-system in the shape of a ring or collar, located more inland. It has a total length of circa 13.5 kilometers. Pingjum is the main terp village that is surrounded by the Gulden Halsband. Other (former) terp settlements within the Gulden Halsband are: Pingjumerrijge, Lutke Pingjum, Westingastate, Wattingastate, Meinsma and a former terp settlement of which the name has not been preserved (Van Rooij 2015).
The dyke-system developed between the tenth and twelfth centuries. Indeed, roughly the time of the legend of Ocke Hel. Primarily, dykes were built for protecting against flooding of the (former) sea inlet the Marne. Sea inlet the Marne was connected with sea channel ‘t Flie which later became the Zuiderzee 'southern sea' (and today is lake IJsselmeer).
The Pingjumer Gulden Halsband is one of the oldest circular dyke-systems in the Netherlands, and hence of the world. The oldest attestation of the name Gulden Halsband ‘golden necklace’ is from 1682. Amazingly, it kept its protective function well into the nineteenth century. During the catastrophic February Flood of 1825, much of province Friesland was submerged. But not Pingjum and surroundings! The Gulden Halsband withstood the wild sea after almost a millennium and kept the enclosed land within dry. It kept the Gate of Hell shut. It hold the doors; Hodor. Only in 1892, it was decided that the Pingjumer Gulden Halsband no longer was part of the country’s sea defense. Big dykes immediately adjacent the sea had taken over its heavy responsibility for good, and the Gulden Halsband could finally retire.
From around 2006, the villagers of Arum, Kimswerd, Pingjum, Witmarsum and Zurich started initiatives to preserve the Gulden Halsband. Some farmers already had levelled some parts of the dyke to create more land. The villagers did so with great success. In 2019, the Gulden Halsband was listed as regional monument by the municipality Súdwest Fryslân. So, no more levelling. Through the years, biodiversity is increasing too.
Part of creating more public and administrative awareness of the unique cultural relevance of the Gulden Halsband, was to establish a hiking path along the dyke-system. It is beautiful circular walk! and made part of long-distance trail Nederlands Kustpad part 3. Sleep in pension annex tavern De Gouden Leeuw 'the golden lion', a former tram station, in the village of Arum and start walking from there in the morning. And also take with you that the soil you will be walking on is considered almost holy ground for the Mennonites; a worldwide Anabaptist church community who's founding father Menno Simons (1496-1561) came from the village of Witmarsum (Hielkema 1995).
Why the dyke-system got the name Gulden Halsband we do not know. Who knows, it has to do with those ancient times when Frisians lived under the yoke of the Vikings. As a symbol of their subordination Frisians were obliged to wear a noose around their neck. After they had been liberated from Viking rule, Frisians started wearing golden collars. Read our posts With a noose through the Norsemen’s Door and Barbarians riding to the capital to claim rights on farmland why golden collars, necklaces and 'free-necks' were important.
animation of the Pingjumer Gulden Halsband
When hiking the circular path Pingjumer Gulden Halsband, and you are at the hamlet of Koudehuizum, do not forget to take a quick look in the direction of the hamlet of Harkezijl and the terp village of Schraard, where about the ship of Ocke Hel must have been. Where, along the Schaarderhemdijk (also Grienedyk), it is haunted at night during autumn and winter. But more importantly, refrain from taking the name of God in vain like Ocke did a thousand years ago, because just as well the Gate of Hell opens again. When the wind turns to the north, you better run!
Note 1 - Featured image is the sculpture La Porte de l 'Enfer 'the gate of hell' created by Auguste Rodin. It is inspired by Dante's fourteenth-century poem Inferno where, when entering Hell, above the doors the phrase is written "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" ('abandon all hope, ye who enter here'). You can admire the Gate of Hell at the Musée Rodin in Paris. Do not peak behind it to see what is there!
Note 2 – Harlingen-Terschelling Rowing Race.
Each year, rowing teams race with sloops from the port of Harlingen to the island of Terschelling; the so-called HT. It is a yearly race of circa 35 kilometers that started in 1975 and takes place in the summer. Depending on the weather, reckon three hours of rowing. One of the club teams participating is Okke Hel with its green sloops.
On the internet a variant can be found of the legend of Ocke Hel, alas without sources, that can be associated with the HT. According to this legend, Okke came from the port of Harlingen instead of Pingjum; an Ouwe Seun therefore. One day, when having a drink in one of the taverns of Harlingen, Okke makes a bet with a stranger. The bet is that they will row from Harlingen to Terschelling. When leaving the tavern, Okke notices that the man has the legs of a goat. Okke realizes it is the Devil. Because the Devil is bragging continuously that he is the strongest rower ever, Okke asks if it is okay that he gets a 30-minute head start. The vain and arrogant Devil agrees. The next day they race. Okke starts and rows in a straight line to the island of Terschelling. What the Devil did not know, was that it would be outgoing tide. Not long after the Devil also started rowing, he hit a sandbank. Okko won the race. This is how Okkehel got his name.
Note 3 – Okkehel was also a punk band with new wave influences between 1979 and 1984, with Piter Wilkens as lead singer and main song writer. Okkehel is, in fact, one of the first music bands singing in Frisian language. Later, the band also incorporated influences of funk, reggae and jazz. Today, Piter Wilkens is a well-known troubadour and folk singer.
Note 4 - While Ocke Hel thought God was dead, respected American philosophers of Frisian descent, professors William Harry Jellema (1893-1982) and Alvin Plantinga (1908-1994), argued God is not dead (De Haan & Huisman 2009). The answer is, of course, 42.
Okkehel, No Hast (Alle Tiid) (1982)
Black Sabbath, God is Dead? (2013)
Adam, D., The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Alighieri, D. (Dante), La Divina Commedia (1321)
Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)
Bureau Peter de Ruyter, landschapsarchitectuur, Masterplan ‘Gouden land’ Visie op de toekomst van de Marneslenk en omgeving in 2030 (2018)
Clerinx, H., De god met de maretak. Kelten en de Lage Landen (2023)
Dykstra, W., Uit Friesland’s volksleven. Van vroeger en later (1966)
Elson, J.T., Toward a Hidden God (1966)
Erfgoedvereniging Heemschut, Pingjumer Gulden Halsband (website)
Haan, de P. & Huisman, K. (eds.), Gevierde Friezen in Amerika (2007)
Hielkema, H., Pingjum en Witmarsum, bedevaartsplaatsen van de Mennisten (1996)
Huisman, K., Penjumer Halsbân (1994)
Irving, J., The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)
Kartskarel, P., Bloedmooi Wûnseradiel. Landschappen, dorpen, dijken, vaarten, droogmakerijen, monumenten (2006)
Koopmans, S., De Middelzee, in verbinding met den Fliestroom langs Bolsward (1890)
Kerkhof, P.A., Het raadsel van Nehalennia ontrafeld (2016)
No.ordpeil landschap erfgoed, Het verhaal van dijk tot dijk (website)
Pronk, R., Door het Friese landschap met Willem (2010)
Rooij, van J., Pingjumer Gulden Halsband (2015)
Salverda, J.C.P., Skipper Ocke (1858)
Wal, van der J., De Pingjumer Gouden Halsband (1985)
Winkler, J., De Hel in Friesland (1894)
Legend of Ocke Hel by S. Koopmans (1890)
Tûzen jier great lyn, do libbe Ocke, it iennichst bern fen Louw, in krêftige Fries, in echte séman, dy ‘t neat lieaver die as mei syn skip op it sâlte skom om to swabjen. In fûleinige skipper wier it, dij nin gefaer koe en for nin divel ef minske bang wier. Mocht er it Kristendom yn namme ek al oannomd ha, yn syn herte hie de âlde lear fen Wodan yet it greatste plak. Mei Wodan hied er lokkich en fortúnlik west: sûnder Wodan woe dat net mear flotsje. lendris wier er wer mei in forheftige stoárm op’e Middelsé en sette, by Boalsert lâns, de koers op Pingjum oan, hwent dat wier syn berte-plak. Der siet mem yn hjar wente al dagen lang mei eangstme nei him út to sjen. Ho trille it àld minske oer al hjar lea, as hja mei eltse ûre de wyn slimmer oanboasjen fielde. “Ocke, myn lieave Ocke, forgiet op it salte skom!” Sa kierme hja. Mar ek Ocke syn skipsmaeten wieren hjar rie to’n ein. Neat oars tochten hja, as it skip scoe forgean. Mar einling liket de stoárm hwat bidarje to scillen, en wylst it skipsfolk yn’e mest opsjucht, sizze hja tsjin elkoar: “Nou scil it mei Gods holp wol gean.” To nauwer need hat Ocke dy wirden fen syn kameraeten heard, ef de Satan springt yn him los, en hij snauwt syn folk ta: “Dy (God) is dead en kald!” To, “poat oan mar! Hwat scoe hy? ‘t Scil sûnder Him!”
O, grouwelike godslastering! Ocke, Ocke, hwat lean scilst derfoár krije! Bitink, as de wrake fen Him, dij’t de hiele wrald rejeart, dij treft, hwat skrik’lik lot dij den oer de holle hingje scil! Mar der tinkt Ocke net om, en — hy hat der ek gjin tiid mear foar. Hwent, nin tel is der forroun, neidat syn mûle dy freeslike wirden útbrocht hat, ef ….. in oeribel greate weage komt op it skip oansetten. Hja skoert him mei en Ocke ploft fen it roer wei oer board. In felle bliksemstriel fliocht troch syn lichem, spjalt de ougroun op en ….. for iwich fordwynt Ocke yn de djipte!
As jimme, friunlike lêzers, nou ier ef let, ris to Wytmaersum komme, den ha jimme mar in healûrke mear to rinnen om by it plak to stean, hwer’t dizze drowige historie fen foár tûsen jier bard is. Draei efkes oan’e westside de Kaldehúster dyk mar op; panderje sa twiske de bouIânnen troch en oer in stik fen de Pingjommer Halsbân bij ’t Spyk, in greate, trijekantige tichtgroeide poel, dêr’t winterdei in plasse wetter yn stiet, mar hweryn simmers de reidpopels en it toerebout tige yn’e hichte sjitte en hin en wer widsje. Den sjongt dêr yn de ieremoarn it lieaflik reidmoskje en tsjattert it út fen wille, wylst it him sêft op en del dounsje lit fen it bûgsomme reid. Op dat plak, nou iensom en forlitten, wier alear drokte en biweging bij de rûs. Do wier ’t de foárhaven fen Penninghom, fen Pingjum, wer’t de skippen delfoelen en ankeren, as de stoármen to folle op it Flie bûwkken, ef as hja hjar frachten to Pingjum losse woeden. Dat alles is nou, al ieuen lyn, forflein, lyk as alles op dizze ierde forgiet. En Pingjum-sels is in stil, gewoan bouboers doárp wirden, hwer’t nimmen me ar wennet, dij’t ús sizze kin, ho it Gea- of doárp-segel er earen útseach, der’t de oarkonde mei bisegele waerd, dij’t de willekarren bifette, hwernei de Tollegrietman to Pingjum mei syn Tollen (rjuchters) riuchtsje moást, op de 31ste Maert 1504 troch de ‘ghemene meente’, de yngesetenen, opmakke en fêststeld.
En as wij fen dat forlittene en binei alheel tichtgroeide havensté ús oukeare en skeanoer op’e Koaipleats oangeane, den fine wy dêr, efkes súdliker, de breede ryd of slinke, hwerfen de lânnen yet in ein djipper lizze as dij’t er neist oan ta komme, en dij slinke is it lêste oerbliuswsel fen de stream, hwerop Ocke en folle oare skippers foár ieuen hinne en wer sylden. Knyp de eagen efkes ta, en yn jimme forbylding sjogge jimme de seilen yet fen de Scraerderkant oukommen. En rin in pear gewinten lân fjirder, den stean jimme fuotten op in stik lân, dat eltse arbeider, boere-feint ef jonge jimme oanwize scil mei de namme, “Ocke Hel”.
To midden yn dat stik lân stoe, nou 60, 70 jier lyn, yet in peal, en dy peal wier de top fen de mêst fen Ocke syn skip, dat op dit plak, ieuen lyn, yn’e djipte forsonken is. Nou is, spitich genoch, dy peal dêr net mear. De kij hawwe der krekt sa lang tsjin oanrost, dat er oubritsen is, en nimmen it plak mear fine ken, hwêr’t er iens stien hat. Mar dat er der earen stoe, wit dy ald man jimme yet to forheljen, dij’t der in stik lân fierder mei syn brike skonk hinne strampelt to mollefangen. Hij hat him yn syn jonge jierren klear dêr kinnen.
En wolle jimme mear wíte fen in plak, hwer ik jimme ta bislút yet hinne liede wol, efkes fen siden de Kievytsherne yn’e hoeke fen de Grienedijk, de wei nei Scraerd op, — it scil jimme it folgjende forhelje. — Sount Ocke op dat plak, hwat nou yette Ocke Hel hiet, op sa’n grousomme wíze oan syn ein komd is, hat it yn’e harne fen’e Grienedyk, yn tsjustere hjearst- en winterjounen, jimmer spûke. Den wier Hantsje-om dêr oan it bouen. In filde foâle mei in gleaune kêrs op’e stirt, holp him ta dit wirk. Mar al ho lang as Hantsje dêr nou al beusig west hat, nea komt er fjirder. Nachts eint it ridlik wol, mar moáms as de dage wer oanbrekt, fordwynt syn wirk allíke ûnforklearbar yn’e skimering, as ‘t de jouns to foaren bigoun is. Sa giet dit jier út, jier yn, jimmer troch. En nea doch wirdt koárthakke wirch fen syn fruchtleas bodsjen.