Fans of the first season of Literary Legends, rejoice! A new season is about to hit your screens, starting off strong with the myth of the 'Birkemännchen'.
Moutfort may seem like a quiet little town, but a long time ago the mischievous spirit of a sinful bailiff plagued the locals to the point that they needed to call in a priest from Belgium – twice. This is the story of the 'Birkemännchen'…
When people think of Luxembourg, most will probably think of banks, accounting firms, European institutions, a highly confusing linguistic situation, and perhaps the fact that this country has an almost worryingly high lawyer-per-capita ratio.
But what if we told you that there's a much more mystical, darker side to the Grand Duchy? A side that lives in stories and tales about dwarves and giants, wicked witches, and vengeful spirits? This is the magical world of Luxembourg's Literary Legends!
Some of you may remember that we first took a deep dive into the supernatural and the macabre all the way back in 2019. While the original run already covered a plethora of myths and legends, there are still so many more stories waiting to be told.
While we can't promise to cover all of the Grand Duchy's literally thousands of folk tales, we hope you'll join us on our journey into a very different version of the country we think we know so well.
To kick off this new series of Luxembourg's Literary Legends, we take a trip down to the town of Moutfort where the townsfolk once had a serious ghost infestation problem.
I. The myth
Our story takes place in a small forest nestled between Œutrange and Moutfort. In these woods, there is a bog called the Birkenmoor, which might seem unassuming at first. But, according to a certain Father Prott, this moor was at the centre of a true supernatural showdown.
Once upon a time, the parish estate of Moutfort was administered by a bailiff who not only shamelessly scammed the local population but also had the audacity to miss church services. Whenever the church bells rang, this truly sinful man had nothing better to do than stay in his bailiwick, sit down comfortably in an armchair by the fire and, in the words of Father Prott, "spend his time chatting with women" – scandalous!
Because of this "ungodly life," the bailiff naturally found no peace in the grave. Soon after his death, his ghost started appearing in the parish house of Moutfort. As ghosts do, he knocked over all sorts of stuff and "raced through the kitchen cupboard as if it wanted to break everything inside into a thousand shards." The undead bailiff also haunted other houses. Several inhabitants of Moutfort reported that whenever the church bells rang, they would suddenly see "an eerie little man sitting at the hearth of the fire, who did not look like other people."
After some time, the locals understandably grew tired of the bailiff's antics and decided to get rid of him. However, none of the local priests dared to take on the task. As is tradition in Luxembourg, a cross-border worker was therefore called in to take care of the job: a priest "from the area behind Arlon."
The external expert forced the spirit to appear before him in the parish house at night and managed to seize him. He then made his way towards the moor, but on the way, the ghost pleaded to be banished to a stream flowing between Moutfort and the bog. The priest rejected this request. This is where the myth takes an illogical and random turn (a recurring trope in Luxembourgish myths, as fans of the original series will know): The spirit asks if it could at least be allowed to enter "a shoe that had been greased on a Sunday" – yeah, I've got nothing for you on this one.
In any case, the priest again refused and cast the undead bailiff into the depths of the moor. Since then, the spirit is known as Birkemännchen or Birkenheerchen.
However, the story does not end here. Even from the moor, the spirit continued to play malicious tricks on the villagers of Moutfort. On one occasion, he hitched a ride on the back of a woman who was carrying a bundle of brushwood. When she eventually had to drop her bundle as it was inexplicably becoming heavier and heavier, she was shocked to find Birkemännchen sitting on top of it. "Thanks for carrying me so far!" the spirit quipped before running back into the forest, laughing mischievously.
Having apparently never heard that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and to expect different results, the villagers called the priest from Arlon back. To be fair to them, it did turn out to be the correct decision: The spiritual ghostbuster captured Birkemännchen for a second time, but this time, he wrapped him in a cloak made of lead and decided to banish him to a stream on the other side of the Moselle, opposite Remich and Stadtbredimus.
In Remich, the priest enlisted a ferryman to transport him across the river. Thinking he just had to transport a single person, the ferryman hurried to get a barge ready, but the priest told him to ready the large ferry instead. The ferryman was confused but agreed and as soon as the priest stepped onto the ferry, it sank so low that "only a finger's breadth" of its outer edge remained visible above the water. Once on the other side, the ferryman insisted that he wanted to see what the priest was carrying under his cloak. The latter obliged and revealed to the unsuspecting ferryman "a little man clad almost entirely in lead, engulfed in raging flames, and scarcely the size of a three-month-old child." The ferryman was so shocked by this sight that upon returning to Remich, his hair had turned completely white, and soon afterwards "he fell ill and died" – truly a tough day at the office.
The myth ends with the priest successfully banishing the Birkemännchen to the depths of the Almer stream. Somewhat disconcertingly, Father Prott notes that, according to some, the spirit was banned "for eternity," while others believe it was "99 years." However, he does make it clear that the Moor Spirit of Moutfort was banned "so tightly" that he "is no longer allowed to enter the country." Let's hope the authorities are aware of this.
II. Beyond the tale
Interpretation-wise, the story of the Birkemännchen is a fairly straightforward ghost story. A leaden cloak is almost always used to get rid of a ghost in Luxembourgish myths. This is a very common trope in ghost stories in general, as lead was believed to dispel malicious spirits.
Another interesting detail is that the section with the ferryman is nearly identical to one that can be found in a ghost story from Remich in which the spirit (a "fiery man") is also banned by a priest to the bottom of the Almer stream – that place seems to have been designated as a sort of "final disposal site" for damned souls.
These similarities are also very common when it comes to folk tales. Many places will have myths that follow similar structures, and sometimes you may even find the exact same legend in different villages.
Want more myths? Why not check out the original series of Luxembourg's Literary Legends!