The Crow Fishers of Niedersachsen

Long before the Dutchmen came to teach them how to drain the marshes and farm the land the people between the Weser and the Elbe lived a miserable existence. Clinging to small islands of dry earth amongst the insect and mist blighted marshes of Niedersachsen they seldom saw the sun and lived in fear of the heavy rains which threatened to drown their precarious settlements.

Their houses, perched precariously upon small islands in the marsh, were raised upon thin and spindly stilts fashioned from the sickly black trees which suffered short and strenuous lives throughout their flooded world. Their walls and roofs were made of wattle and daubed with mud and grass. Smoke from dung fires seeped from below their eaves and sank to the ground, pressed down by the weight of the mist.

They were not a religious people between the rivers. For, although the Word had reached them in the days of Rome, they found it intolerable to feel so far from His sight, hidden in their misery by the mist. Few men of the cloth would venture far into the marshes with the biting insects and fetid stenches. Even brave Willehadus, who had missioned amongst the terrifying pagan Frisians, would not brave the marshlands.

Amongst the people of the marshes there persisted a curious past-time, the origins of which lay in their distant blood soaked and pagan past. A past which saw them ostracised by their fellow pagans and isolated in their horrid home. For the people of the marshes were fishers of crows.

To the many named ancient gods of northern Europe many animals and places were of great importance. Some gods would haunt the rivers and woodland groves. Others raged in the frightful seas and skies smashing at the land with all their might. Of all the animals that the gods of old held dear few were dearer to them than the crow. To the men of the north the crows were the eyes and ears of their god Odin, to the Welsh they were sacred creatures of the god-king of the Britons Bran who gave his name to the birds. To the peoples of northern Germania the birds were the sacred companions of the strange water creatures, the Krähen, from whom the German word for crow, Krähe, comes.

The Krähen lived alongside the people of the northern low countries and carried the souls of the dead to the other world. They haunted the places where land and water meet. The marshlands were such a place. There the Krähen were numerous and would often be glimpsed playing in the water with their crows circling in the mist filled air above them.

The people who lived along the rivers and shores treated the Krähen with reverence and affection, leaving treats of fish and fruit on the beaches and banks for them. For their part the Krähen would whisper in the ears of their birds keeping them away from the crops of the people. This was not the case for the people of the marsh. The cold damp of the air and the great difficulties of their lives had made them mean of spirit and hard of heart. The goodness that is innate in all human babies was smothered by the mist in the marsh babies before they had left their cribs.

Amongst the people of the marsh was a young man named Halwende. It is said that he came across a lone Krähen when he was fishing one day. He was sat in his flat bottomed boat, his hook baited and waiting to be tossed into the water when he saw the dark shape of the Krähen in the reeds a small way off. Its crow sat preening itself in the spindly branches of a small tree nearby. The Krähen dipped in and out of the water playing and laughing to itself, unaware that Halwende was watching it. The laughter of a Krähen is a sound that fills most with joy, just as does the laugh of a baby. So cold was the heart of Halwende however that the sounds of joy made him sick with anger.

Halwende decided that he would catch the Krähen and that he would kill it. He took his baited line, the worm still wriggling futilely on the hook and gently tossed it through the air until the line landed across a branch not far from the crow. Straight away the bird caught sight of the wriggling worm and in a heartbeat had swallowed the tasty morsel, hook and all. Seizing his moment Halwende pulled his line tight and the terrified bird took to the wing barking and screaming as best it could with the line in its beak.

The bird fought as hard as any fish but in moments Halwende had pulled it close enough that he could grab it and shove it straight into a sack. He looked back towards the reeds where the Krähen had been playing. Sure enough, the creature was swimming straight to him. Drawn by the cries of its trapped familiar the dark form of the Krähen swept through the water, its back arching in and out of the water like a dolphon, until it had reached the flat bottomed boat.

The Krähen grasped the sides of the boat with wet, scaled fingers and looked beseechingly at Halwende. Its huge black eyes filled with tears of fear for its friend. No Krähen had ever experienced such a thing as this and it was at a loss for what to do. Cold hearted Halwende however was at no such loss and quickly reached down to grab the bewildered Krähen, pulling it easily into the boat where he could slide his knife between its ribs.

Once the Krähen lay still on the floor of his boat Halwende reached into the sack and wrung the neck of the crow before rowing back to his village.

The name of the village in which Halwende lived is lost to time, as is its location, but it was little different to any of the other sad little settlements in the marshes. Once he had pulled his boat ashore he called his neighbours to him and told them what he had done. None were shocked nor upset for their hearts were all as hard as Halwende’s. Maybe it was Halwende who suggested that they eat the Krähen, fresh meat was hard to come by in the marsh, or maybe it was one of his neighbours. It matters little as soon the people of this little village had discovered that the flesh of the Krähen was the most delicious thing that any of them had ever tasted.

The next day all the men of the village went out to catch Krähen in much the same way that Halwende had. Over time they honed their skills for catching the playful creatures and they would build small platforms raised up on stilts above the marshy waters. From these platforms they would fly baited hooks from kites in order to catch the crows. They would then leave the crows distraught and flying, trapped in the air above them, whilst they climbed down to their boats in order to pluck the terrified and confused Krähen from the water. Soon the people of the neighbouring villages had heard of the taste of Krähen meat they too began to hunt the hapless creatures. Before long the entire marsh was filled with platforms for Krähen hunting.

Once the tribes who lived beyond the insect blighted marshes heard what had been happening they turned on the people of the marsh. They refused to trade with them, forbade their sons to marry the daughters of the marsh people and turned them away from festivities and gatherings. Even when the tribes were uniting to fight the spread of the Mediterranean empire the people of the marshes were kept away.
Eventually there were no more Krähen in the marshes. Those that did not fall prey to the hunters fled to friendlier rivers and seas. When the Krähen were gone the people began to eat only the crows and, denied trade with the outside world, they had to use all parts of the birds they caught and so made clothes from the black feathers of the birds.

By the time that the people had heard the Word they were an even sadder and sorrier sight than they had been in the days before Christ. Sad and miserable people fishing for crows and cursing the world beyond their watery lands. Eventually the men from the Netherlands came and drained the lands of water, growing crops and keeping cattle. Life there became better and the people no longer fished for crows. The platforms still remain though. Even to this day when one walks among the new forests of the flat lands one will find these platforms where the hunters sit drinking schnapps and warming their cold cold hearts with innocent blood.