The Ship of Hell

There have long been complaints that the chancellors serving the lords of East Frisia did not work to the land’s weal, but to its woe. But the reign of not one of them has ended with such hearty cries of “Farewell” as Chancellor Justus von Wetter1). Wetter was a true plague, a scourge on his subjects. Especially the people of Harland2), the stepchildren of the East Frisian noble house, suffered under his rule. Therefore a heavy weight was lifted from their hearts when they heard the news: The chancellor’s black soul had left his body.

However, the following tale is told about the death and his journey to the Hereafter: In the night when the chancellor was lying on his deathbed the Devil appeared and demanded from the dying man’s next of kin that they should leave, as he alone had the right to receive his soul and lead it to Hell. After this was done, the Devil snapped the neck of the helpless chancellor, pulled his soul out of his throat, and flew away with it into the air - towards the coast where the ship of hell was waiting for its departure.

At this time, nobody in Harland knew about the death of Wetter. But in the morning, sailors from the islands Langeoog and Spiekeroog3) appeared in the harbor of Harlingersiel4) and reported with deeply disturbed frowns: “During the night we were on the Wadden Sea5), trailing our nets, and slowly moved towards the coast while fishing. When it it turned midnight, a completely black ship sailed past us. It had full sails that were black as well, and sailed directly against the wind while not making any kind of sound. There was strange activity on board, and even though it was darkest night we were still able to see the crew clearly. They consisted of many hundreds of devils moving about their tasks both on the deck and in the rigging. And behind the wheel there was a devil who was more terrible in countenance than the others. In his terrible claws he held a white thing which whined and writhed back and forth, and occasionally cried out loud when Satan pinched it. And we were terribly afraid when our ships were first tossed to the side and then pinned in place as if bewitched, and then a shrill voice called out to us: ‘Tell your compatriots that the Devil has fetched the chancellor this night!’ And then the devil’s ship was suddenly out and beyond on the high seas, and a mocking laughter arrived with us from a great distance. And we hurriedly moved to get away from this haunted place.” And there was great joy in the land after hearing this news, and even today people say: “Great justice was done to the chancellor!”


Source: Sundermann, F. Sagen und sagenhafte Erzählungen aus Ostfriesland, 1869. p. 25ff.

Notes & Commentary: The Devil and the Sea


1)
Thanks to the assistance of Dr. Nina Henning of the Ostfriesische Landschaft society, I have learned that “Justus von Wetter”/”Jost Wetter” was a real person who was the first chancellor appointed to run the Harlingerland. He had this position from 1569/70 to his sudden death in 1581 and was widely regarded as an oppressor by the people of the region. Source: König, J. Verwaltungsgeschichte Ostfrieslands bis zum Aussterben seines Fürstenhauses, 1955. p. 254f.
2)
Also known as “Harlingerland”. It covers the north-central parts of East Frisia.
3)
Two islands lying off the coast of Harlingerland.
4)
This is likely the modern-day village of Altharlingersiel (“Old Tide Gate of Harling”), which had a harbor and direct access to the ocean until 1693 but now lies inland and is part of the municipality of Neuhalingersiel (“New Tide Gate of Harling”).
5)
The Wattenmeer, a region of vast tidal mudflats along the North Sea coast of Germany and neighboring countries, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve in the modern day and home to innumerable creatures.