You’ve goat to be kidding me: the Bokkenrijders

The venerable Paul Karle recently did me the service of sharing a quote from Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit:

“Serial murder may, in fact, be a much older phenomenon than we realize. The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.”

-John E. Douglas

In another post brought to you by Humans are Terrible!™, let’s dig into a crime spree so monstrous that it was blamed on Satan himself, and the equally monstrous response to it.

Ignoble steeds

Zoom in on Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. Look at any pictures of modern Limburg and you can almost hear the classical music play: It is full of gently rolling hills dotted with the occasional patch of forest, exactly the type of imagery you’d expect to find under generic inspirational messages about wholesomeness or peace.

Bokkenrijder
A handsomely dressed bokkenrijder dude.

But back in the 18th century, especially on nights with a full moon, you would not have wanted to be caught in that quiet countryside alone. Voices echoed over the hills, cackles and hoots booming down from the black sky. If you looked up, you might see a group of men leering back at you, fingers clutched in the fur of unnaturally large, flying goats.

Satan gifted these goats (or bucks, because I guess goats without horns would not be demonic enough) to whatever outlaw would pledge himself to him. Night after night, his bokkenrijder (or buckrider) gangs soared through the sky, seeding terror wherever they went.

Preposterous deeds

You can imagine the kind of shenanigans that the brigands got up to when they had volitant goats as their getaway car. The bokkenrijders conducted raids throughout the peaceful countryside, robbing and beating all in their path, especially wealthy farm or church owners. As they flew, they could be heard crying “Across houses, across gardens, across stakes, even across Cologne into the wine cellar!” (One assumes that this refrain was born deep in the bowels of said wine cellar.) They trampled people under the hooves of their monstrous goats (*cue Grandma Got Runover By a Bokkenrijder soundtrack*) and drank potions in a bizarre gang initiation ritual that secured their pact with the devil.

Burning farmhouse
Real dick move, bokkenrijders.

Even people that may not have been legit bokkenrijders got on the bandwagon, capitalizing on their reputation to extort money from the terrified countryfolk. There are accounts of “fire letters” being delivered to wealthy farm owners by self-professed bokkenrijders–notes saying essentially “give me money, or I’ll use my Satanic skills to burn your house to the ground.”

One has to wonder if it was bold moves like this that eventually got the rijders into more earthly trouble.

Some suspect leads

Limburg officials began to investigate where these bokkenrijders were coming from, and reported back with some whackadoodle stuff.

Satan
“Let’s all get goaty with it.” -Satan

Reddit’s /NoSleep includes one take on the story. Late one night, ordinary robbers made the mistake of trying to escape law enforcement by running into a strange patch of woods. There, they happened upon a crossroads. The full moon illuminated a sign scribbled over with old Dutch, “Devil” prominent among the words.  The outlaws read the sign aloud (as one always should upon coming across something that is clearly a summoning spell), and a horned figure emerged from between the trees to offer them a sweet, goaty deal.

A few of the brigands said “hell no” (get it?) and escaped back to civilization, choosing to face the noose rather than the guy who left hoofprints in his wake. These were the ones who allegedly brought this bokkenrijder origin story to town, where it spread like arson fire.

Church-sanctioned bleeds

Keep in mind that all of this was happening at a time where a lot of people were struggling to make ends meet, and only the wealthy were getting by. It’s not surprising that some turned to crime. Sure, the burning things and the hurting people and the bringing ole’ Satan into it was not cool. But I think it’s safe to say that the retribution went a wee bit overboard. Some even say that officials might have invented the bokkenrijder myth themselves in order to justify their obscenely violent crackdown on thieves.

Between 1730 and 1780, hundreds were killed in a wave witch trials for bokkenrijders. In typical witch trial fashion, most of the victims were innocent and confessed only under pain of torture. They didn’t have a bright future once they did. Bokkenrijder executions were brutal, even for the time: People were strangled at the stake and then burned, had their hands cut off and then burned, or were simply burned alive. It was bad enough that one dude stabbed himself until he died, presumably to avoid the heinous execution in store.

Bokkenrijder statue
One of many bokkenrijder statues.

In spite of this outsized retribution (or maybe because of it), the power of the bokkenrijder myth persisted. Today, it continues to persist, albeit as a historical relic in the form of statues and business names. I think that the takeaways from this story are simple:

1) Trust not your fellow man.

2) Trust goats even less.

Have you ever been trampled by a goat? Share your story in the comments below.

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons for the poster (by Theo Molkenboer) and Satan’s face (artist not machine readable (…!)); Pixabay’s kolyaeg for the burning house; and Flickr’s Crossroads for the statue.

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