Variations: Lange-wapper, Long Wapper
Centuries ago, the woods around Antwerp crawled with demons, goblins, and all sorts of evil creatures. They became so troublesome that the townsfolk organized a massive raid, mobilizing priests and arming themselves with bell, book, candle, and icons of the Virgin Mary. The countryside was scoured, and every monster they found was exorcised and banished to the sea.
They did not check the water. One creature escaped their attention by waiting quietly for them to leave. From there he made his way into the canals of Antwerp, where he settled down and incubated his resentment towards humanity.
This was Lange Wapper, or “Long Wapper”. As a shapeshifter, he has no fixed appearance or size. He can be be taller than buildings or the size of a mouse. However, his favored forms usually have long, skinny legs with which he walks on water. These legs can stretch to enormous lengths, allowing him to peer in windows and terrify the inhabitants. The strange movements he makes on those stilt-like legs are the origin of his name, as wapper is an antiquated term for “balance”, and an even more ancient term for “big man”.
Lange Wapper revels in his shapeshifting powers, using them for pranks of varying cruelty. He can become an abandoned kitten, a scared-looking dog, a priest, a nun, a rich man, a beautiful woman, a beggar in rags… any shape that lets him draw unsuspecting victims towards him. Other times Lange Wapper grows to gigantic size and towers over drunkards staggering home at night, frightening them to death. He can duplicate himself as much as he likes, filling dark alleyways with monstrous apparitions. Wappersrui and Wappersbrug are some of his preferred haunts.
A form he often used was a newborn baby, crying on the side of the road. If someone picked him up out of pity, they found their burden slowly growing in weight, until they finally drop it in alarm. The demon then laughs hysterically, and dives back into the canal. He loves milk and especially likes playing this trick on mothers and wet-nurses, draining them dry before making his escape. Lange Wapper also does his best to delay midwives and doctors from attending to women in childbirth.
One time Lange Wapper turned himself into a woman who had four suitors, and soon enough the first suitor arrived to demand her hand in marriage. “I accept, but only if you go to the Notre-Dame cemetery and lay yourself across the crucifix, until midnight”. Confused but elated, the man set off. He was followed by the second suitor, who made the same proposal. “Of course! But only if you go to the Notre-Dame cemetery, take a coffin, carry it to the crucifix, and lie in it until midnight”. The third suitor was told to knock three times on the lid of the coffin, and the fourth had to take an iron chain and run around the crucifix three times, dragging the chain behind him. As expected, the first suitor died of fright when he saw the second crawl into the coffin, the second had a heart attack when the third knocked on his coffin, and the third dropped dead when he heard the fourth running around and rattling his chain. The fourth suitor, baffled, returned to his lover – the real one, this time – to tell her the news, and she committed suicide upon hearing it. Lange Wapper found all this quite amusing.
Lange Wapper does have a soft spot for children, and often becomes a child himself to play with them. But old habits die hard, and he still can’t resist ending the games with some prank.
Unfortunately for Lange Wapper, Antwerp became more and more hostile to him. Modernization of the canals was certainly an annoyance, but the worst came when his fear of Our Lady was discovered. Images of the Virgin Mary proliferated, and soon the demon found himself facing religious imagery everywhere. He has not been seen in a long while; for all we know, he has given up and returned to the sea.
Griffis, W. E. (1919) Belgian Fairy Tales. Thomas Y. Crowell, New York.
van Hageland, A. (1973) La Mer Magique. Marabout, Paris.
Teirlinck, I. (1895) Le Folklore Flamand. Charles Rozez, Brussels.