As noted in our Resurrection Mary series, Women in White seems to be a folklore tale that spans the world. In particular, the Netherlands has an interesting take on these kind of specters. They’re known as the Witte Wieven and, instead of ghosts of women wronged, they are portrayed as fairy-beings or the ghosts of wise women past.
Similar to Women in White of American lore, Witte Wieven has a type of uniform. They’re usually describe as ethereal beings that are dressed in veils and seem to produce fog that keeps them largely hidden or obscured. As mentioned above, what they are does allow for some debate. Some believe they are the healers of folk religions that have passed and others believe they are a kind of fairy, wight, or elf. Personally, I find the idea that they are the ghosts or remains of wise women to be quite convincing simply because ‘Witte Wieven’, though it literally translates to White Women, also is connected to Wise Woman. How? Well, in Dutch Low Sax ‘wit’ means wise.
Witte Wieven don’t appear to wait by the roadside, but instead inhabit dolmens, passage graves, and other tombs in addition to motte-and-bailey castles. Although, it appears they did have some freedom of movement and would sometimes travel outwards to the fields and forests surrounding their domain. In some tales, they would dance and temp those who came across them to follow them. Although it is not clear where they would be led many were never seen again. Like banshees, sometimes seeing them was believed to be a bad omen or even a sign of looming death.
In a story close to what happens when one enters a fairy ring, the Witte Wieven of Monterflan drove a farmer quite mad. “A farmer called Gert van Beek was sitting in tavern was ordering beer after beer, at the end of the evening he was totally drunk and decided to leave, but the other people in the tavern advised him to stay a little longer because this was the time when the White Women were roaming the forests; "Don't you know that the White Women are on the prowl at 12 oclock during full moon? Just wait a little longer before you go!" the farmer laughed about this and said; "if I encounter any of them I will ask her for a dance!", and he went outside. On the way back to his house in the village of Beek he took a shortcut through the forest and suddenly he saw strings of mist appearing between the trees, he could not see a thing and all around him was the grey shroud of the fog, he saw figures being formed in the mist and suddenly three White Women appeared in front of him of which one approached him. Gert was still very drunk and impudently he asked her to dance with him; the White Woman grabbed him and started dancing, she continued through the entire night and would not stop, Gert desperately tried to free himself but he had no control over his body anymore and had to continue with the White Woman's death-dance, the sweat was pouring from his face and he begged the White Woman to stop, but she continued and made him dance like he had never done before. The next morning Gert's body was found by some villagers after he had literally danced himself to death.”
Johan Picardt, a 17th century Dutch doctor and historian, wrote about them in 1660: “Among the mounds, one can find a few that have sunken in and which used to be hollow. Wherever you go, you will hear the people say that they used to be the homes of the white women, and the thought of their various works is still so fresh in the memory of many grey heads as if it had all happened only recently.
In some places where one finds these dwellings of the white women, one will hear the inhabitants declare that in some of those great mounds the white women used to live; that they used to be haunted; that they used to hear terrible cries, moans and laments of men and women; that day and night the white women fetched and helped women during labour, even when all seemed desperate; that they predicted people their good and bad fortune; that they pointed out the hiding place of things that had been lost or stolen; that the people honoured them and recognised all that was godly in them; that some of the inhabitants had on a few occasions been inside these mounds and had seen and heard incredible things there but had been made to swear on their lives not to speak of it; that they had been quicker than any creature; that they had always been dressed in white and were called not white women but simply whites because of it.”
So, it seems these creatures are complex and have a more detailed background than one might initially guess. Although they fit into the Woman in White legend, these creatures seem to bridge the spirit world and the other world, landing them in a unique place in the wider Woman in White mythos.
This image is from Flickr user Rosmarie Voegtli. Licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)