Welcome to our second guest blog post – looking at the some of the wildest superstitions about chickens and roosters in the folklore of Flanders, as written by Signe Maene. If you would like to submit an article, please tell us about your proposal using the form on the Contact page or by sending us a message on Twitter, and we will be in touch. Thank you for reading!
Once upon a time, there were a lot of odd and wonderful superstitions about chickens and roosters in Flanders. They often appear in Flemish folktales – and even in tales where they are only mentioned briefly, they are instrumental in deciding how the story will end. Before diving into this bizarre and fascinating world, I would like to note that the superstitions covered in this post are very regional and not well known throughout Flanders today.
In Flemish folklore, both chickens and roosters were associated with the Devil, but the ways in which they were associated with this figure couldn’t be more different. You might have used a chicken if you wanted to have a tête-à-tête with the dark lord, while having a rooster in the vicinity was essential if you wanted to be saved from his damnation.
Let’s start with chickens. It was said that if you went to a certain place and brought a black chicken with you, then you would meet the Devil. While most of us would like to keep our soul, in these folktales people wanted to sell theirs. One of the places where a lot of soul selling in the company of chickens took place was at intersections, but the Devil frequented other spots too. According to one tale, a popular spot was near a statue depicting Christ. The statue was painted red and blue. When the local priest had the statue painted green, the Devil tourism apparently stopped.
It was also very important to make sure that your chicken was black. One man thought that it would be funny to show up with a white chicken instead of a black one. Unfortunately, the Devil didn’t appreciate this man’s sense of humour, and so the man had to make a break for it and crawl between hedges to escape the Devil’s wrath. Success wasn’t always guaranteed either. Another man who did everything right and patiently waited at an intersection with a chicken never got the chance to speak with the Devil, for the dark one rode at him in a burning carriage at very high speed – which also ended with the man having to run away as fast as he could.
Meeting the Devil wasn’t the only reason for bringing chickens to intersections. According to one very local superstition, you would have the power to recognise witches if you took a black chicken with you to an intersection at midnight on Christmas Eve. There’s a catch though: this time the chicken had to be resting on your head.
Once you strike a bargain with the Devil, you might get second thoughts so that’s what roosters are for. There are a lot of Flemish folktales that tell the story of farmers who don’t have enough space to store their harvest and desperately need an extra barn before the important task of gathering the crops begins. In these stories, they make a deal with the Devil. Before the rooster crows, the farmers are promised they’ll have a brand-new barn in exchange for their soul. But while the Devil is toiling away during the night, the farmer usually regrets this decision. Some farmers wake up the rooster themselves before daybreak to avoid their awful fate. More often, the farmers wake up their wives, tell them about their plight relying on their quick wittedness to wake up the bird. Others may even mimic the rooster’s crow!
The Devil is understandably very angry after all that hard work, but he has to admit defeat. The barn isn’t finished on time and the farmer gets to keep his soul. In some of these tales there’s even an enormous hole on the spot where the barn should have been. Some describe the hole as an endless pit, while others describe it as a pit in which you can see the bottom – but no matter how much earth you throw into it, the pit cannot be filled.
There are also stories about people who never intended to sell their soul in the first place. One farmer, who had lost everything and needed a farm, promised the Devil that he could have his soul in exchange for a farm. The Devil and his devilish co-workers laboured all night. When they were nearly done, the farmer’s wife quickly woke up the rooster. The Devil and his team vanished immediately. But, despite the fact that this man didn’t have to sell his soul and got to keep a nice new farm, that didn’t bring him much luck, for the farm was cursed and haunted.
In Flemish folktales, there are also a lot of stories about witches who can shapeshift into hares, cats, magpies and most of the other animals that we’re likely to encounter in everyday life. Chickens and roosters are missing here because they are the kind of animals that wizards prefer to shapeshift into. There are several tales about people who discover that a wizard lives in the neighbourhood after one of these birds gets wounded. The next day, they find the suspected wizard in bed with the same wounds as those the chicken or rooster had.
Taking animals home that don’t belong to you is another big no-no in Flemish folklore. According to one folktale, a man who was walking back from an inn found a chicken and twelve chicks alone on the road. Inebriated, he decided to scoop them up, but would bitterly regret doing that. The following day, the chicken had changed into the Devil, while the twelve chicks had changed into twelve little devils. He visited a priest who gave the man his stola for protection. When the devils changed back into animals, the man put them back in the exact same place where he had found them. Similar stories are found throughout Flemish folktales but the things that these animals change into often differ. While swans might usually change into skulls, rabbits could change into stones.
In summary, the advice from Flemish folklore is: if you would like to sell your soul to the Devil, go to an intersection with a chicken. If it turns out you regret your decision, wake up the rooster. And remember to be careful with taking animals that you meet on the road home: they might change into skulls and stones, or even little devils!
Nederlandse Volksverhalenbank [Online]. Available at https://www.verhalenbank.nl/ (Accessed 1 February 2022).
Top, S. (2005) West-Vlaams sagenboek, Leuven, Davidfonds.
Top, S. (2004) Limburgs Sagenboek, Leuven, Davidfonds.
Signe Maene is a Belgian writer who is very passionate about folklore. She has worked on several projects based on folklore for the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities Podcast. Signe is currently working on a short story collection based on tales from Flemish folklore. You can visit her website www.signemaene.com or find her on Twitter @maenesigne.