RTL Today's Tom Weber continues his series on Luxembourg's Literary Legends with an entertaining tale of local ghouls with a taste for haunting drunkards.
Like to get your buzz on from time to time? If you live in Schengen or Luxembourg City, you might want to go easy on the fun sauce because both of these places are home to spirits that are said to specifically target those who've had just the one too many.
Alcohol is without a doubt one of the most popular vices among the Luxembourgish population. There is almost no region in the country that does not have at least one festival entirely centred around booze, either in the form of beer, wine, or spirits.
When leafing through the dusty old volumes of Luxembourgish folktales, alcohol (unsurprisingly) comes up quite a bit. However, there are two local legends, one from Schengen and the other from Luxembourg City, that share an interesting characteristic in that they are both about ghosts that were said to haunt drunk people in particular.
Let's meet the Sickermännchen and the Sterchesgeescht!
I. The legend of the 'Sickermännchen'
Our first story begins hundreds of years ago in a quaint village at the base of an area called Strombierg (nowadays a delightful natural conservation area). In this village lived a family comprised of a mother, her son, and the latter's grandmother.
The son, a lively thirteen-year-old lad, possessed an adventurous spirit that often diverted him from attending church, steering him instead toward fishing or hunting escapades.
On one fateful Christmas Eve, he found himself engrossed in late-night fishing, returning home with a ravenous appetite.
Impatiently, he demanded his supper, but his mother told him that she had not cooked anything for him. The son began to argue with his mother, calling her all sorts of names. This was a bad idea for many reasons, chief among them probably the fact that his grandma was feared throughout the village as a witch.
The grandmother ordered her grandson to be silent at once. When he refused to do so, she cried out in a ghastly voice: "May you be forever denied a lasting abode on this earth!" As soon as these ominous words escaped her lips, the son vanished into thin air.
Since that fateful night, he has been cursed to wander the rocky expanse near Schengen, known as Schengerlach, and the adjacent woods. At the stroke of midnight, he emerges before unsuspecting travellers, who describe him as a small figure with wild hair, a long white beard, and fiery eyes wearing blue trousers, white stockings, a hat with three upturned brims, and buckled shoes.
He was an ambivalent spirit who was kind to good people, but loved to play tricks on bad people, especially drunkards, leading them astray, often toward the Moselle river. Those who dared insult him and treat him rudely would swiftly find themselves seized by the collar and unceremoniously hurled into the water.
During instances of high water levels when the Moselle flooded the road, the spirits' helpful nature would manifest. Harmless hikers were safely transported across the water, their feet miraculously untouched by the dampness.
According to Dr Nicolas Gredt, legends of Sickermännchen persisted until the advent of the first French Revolution, after which his apparitions ceased entirely. But should you ever find yourself a bit sloshed on a local wine festival, it is perhaps still a good idea to watch out for any fiery eyed centuries old spirits that may lie dormant in the area…
II. 'Sterchesgeescht' – The capital's little ghost star
Moving on to the capital where a rather mischievous ghost is said to have roamed the streets around Porte de Trèves, commonly known as Sterchen (meaning "little star" in old orthography, now spelled as Stäerchen), at night.
Legend has it that this ghost had a particular interest in drunkards, possibly because it was said to have been a heavy drinker during its own life. The spectre would sit on the drunkard's neck, throw them to the ground, and beat the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of them. There also several accounts of it shapeshifting into a bull, wolf, dog, cat, hare, piglet, and even appear as a drunkard's worst nightmare – an empty barrel.
In one story, the Sterchesgeescht gifts a piglet to a drunken man after beating him up. However, when the latter tried to get a closer look, the piglet transformed into a lifeless, decaying carcass.
In Rue Neuve, just behind the castle bridge, the Sterchesgeescht once took residence within a rock and appeared to a man in an enormous, menacing form, wielding a club. Frightened, the man fled to his home, but the ghost's presence haunted him for the rest of his life.
During town festivities, the ghost would disrupt the carriage horses, causing chaos and havoc in the streets.
The ghost seemed to like the inconvenience he could cause by enlarging himself because there are several more stories playing with that theme.
In the shape of a giant, the Sterchesgeescht once silenced the bells of the cathedral church to prevent them from ringing. Another time, it laid across the ground from Porte de Trèves to the bridge, blocking people from entering their houses.
An unfortunate man from Rahm experienced a harrowing encounter when the ghost's long arms seized him as he attempted to fetch water from the Alzette. The spectre placed him on a precarious ledge of the opposite rock, leaving him stranded there for the entire night. He was finally rescued the next morning with the aid of ropes.
Remember the piglet from earlier? Well, turns out the Sterchesgeescht did not just like gifting them, he also liked turning into them. On one occasion, he dashed around Porte de Trèves in that form, seemingly elusive to capture. Eventually, someone managed to grab it with an apron, only to discover horse manure in the apron instead of the piglet.
The horse manure storyline appears to have proven popular, as it features again in an almost identical story.
Adding to the menagerie of mutations is another story in which our mischievous friend takes on the form of a grey tomcat and startles three women on Pfaffenthal Bridge. One of the women, in a quick reaction, threw her shoe at the cat, inadvertently causing it to fall into the Alzette. To everyone's surprise, the shoe reappeared at the town gate the next morning.
Finally, there is one more tale recorded in Dr Gredt's Sagenschatz. In this one, the ghost transformed into a black dog that sprawled across – again – the Pfaffenthal bridge, reaching from one side to the other. A labourer named Lechner encountered the beast on his way home at midnight. Overcoming his fear, he leaped over the less threatening part, which was the tail of the creature. However, to his horror, he later noticed the monster's snout dangerously close to his head. Seeking refuge in a nearby house, the ghost continued to haunt him, keeping its snout close to the labourer's head.
III. The cursed son vs the ethereal trickster
While sharing some similarities, it is clear that these are two very distinct tales.
Of the two, the Sickermännchen places more emphasis on the theme of a spirit haunting drunk people in particular, while the Sterchesgeescht is a more elaborate story about a trickster ghost from the capital.
I personally found both of these stories interesting because they are intricate in different ways. The Sickermännchen is a more complete tale as it features an actual origin story and even a time period (which is generally rather rare when it comes to these folklore tales).
In comparison, we don't really know where the Sterchesgeescht came from, but there are many more accounts of its actions and the tricks this ghost liked to play on unsuspecting citizens – including drunkards.
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