Found in maritime Flanders, land of Waas, and especially Hamme, near Dendermonde, Osschaert is one of several mischievous shapeshifters that plague Belgium. He was particularly around the chapel of Twee Bruggen.
According to van Hageland, his name may be a combination of ors, an archaic word denoting a horse or more generally a mount, or os, an ox, with hard, meaning “strong” or “valiant”. In this sense, Osschaard or Osschaert is a headstrong and dangerous steed.
As with others of his kind, Osschaert appears in countless forms, most notably a human-headed bull with heavy chains on its legs and feet. He has also appeared as a dog, a rabbit, a horse, a giant, a dwarf… At Knoche-sur-mer, where he serves as a bogey to frighten children, he is a ghost with a bull’s head. Commonly he drags a long length of chain behind him.
Osschaert is mischievous rather than actively evil. He delights in jumping on the backs of people and forcing them to carry him until they collapse. He is just as likely to jump off his mount’s shoulders to dive into a woman’s basket, causing her to stagger under the sudden load. Osschaert particularly enjoys tormenting sinners and wicked people, and will target them above all others.
He rules over all the water in the area, so the first fish caught is returned as an appeasing gift to Osschaert. Not that he’s guaranteed to ensure a good catch. And beware of catching fish without thanking Osschaert! One fisherman dragged his catch onto the beach only to find himself pinned down for an hour by Osschaert; when he was finally released his catch had disappeared. Another fisherman pulled an incredibly heavy net onto his boat, only to find it full of horse manure.
At the church of Twee Bruggen, daring Osschaert out loud to scratch you will result in a mauling. Specifically, one only has to utter the formula Grypke, Grypke grauw, wilt gy my grypen, grypt my nou (“Grypke, Grypke grey, if you will gripe me, gripe me now”) and Osschaert will appear on your back and ride you to the nearest crossroads or image of the Virgin Mary. In fact, in areas where people dared Osschaert to appear resulted in the spirit becoming more cruel and aggressive due to being repeatedly called upon.
A young man of Doel, crossing a field by night, found himself face to face with an enormous, monstrous horse. “This is Osschaert”, he thought to himself. “I must get out of his way”. He decided to pass through the churchyard, but then met a dog the size of a horse on the main road. He crossed himself and took another path to the churchyard, but there was Osschaert in the form of a rabbit, jumping back and forth towards him. He tried to turn around the churchyard, only to find Osschaert waiting for him in the shape of a donkey with enormous fiery eyes the size of plates! That was the point when the man gave up, jumped the wall, and ran home in a cold sweat.
Another man, a fisherman of Kieldrecht named Blommaert, thought he could outsmart Osschaert. He usually placed his catch of fish in a water-tub near the window. One night he found that some fish were missing; not only that, but there were ashes on the hearth, as though someone had broiled the fish on the embers. Blommaert could find no signs of break-in, and concluded Osschaert was behind this mischief. When the same thing happened a second time, he decided to cure Osschaert of his thieving behavior. He covered the entire hearth with horse-dung, and scattered some ashes over it to disguise it. Osschaert showed up as usual, pronouncing “Blommeken, vischkens braeyen”, but when he tried to cook the fish it ended up spoiled with the dung. He ran away screaming and cursing in frustration. Blommaert celebrated his cunning revenge – but alas, it does not pay to outwit Osschaert. The next day, when Blommaert drew in his net, he found it extraordinarily heavy. After much effort, he hauled it on deck, and found it to be full to cracking with horse-dung. Osschaert laughed loud and long, and Blommaert returned home angry and defeated.
Today Osschaert is retired, if not dead. A priest at Hamme was said to have banished Osschaert to wander at the sea-shore for ninety-nine years. And at Spije, Malines, one can see Osschaert’s coffin. It is a small coffin-shaped bridge over a stream.
van Hageland, A. (1973) La Mer Magique. Marabout, Paris.
Harou, A. (1905) Mythologie et folk-lore de l’enfance. Revue des Traditions Populaires, v. XX, p. 96.
Thorpe, B. (1852) Northern Mythology, v. III. Edward Lumley, London.