The lovely people of Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, are eternally devoted to local folklore. How else can one explain why they prefer to believe their city name derives from the slaying of a Flemish giant and not simply from an ancient Dutch word describing a mound of land along the banks of the river Scheldt that historians believe was the first Roman settlement in the area?
Legend has it that the giant Druon Antigoon lived along the river banks in the area and terrorised all who wished to sail down the Scheldt, demanding large tolls before granting passage. If anyone refused to pay the toll, the giant would cut off their hands. Antigoon’s reign of terror came to an end when a young Roman soldier called Silvius Brabo slewed the giant by cutting Antigoon’s own hand off and throwing it into the river. Surprisingly, the city was not named Brabo as a result. Instead, the Dutch words for ‘hand’ (hand) and ‘throw’ (werpen) are believed to have been fused together to create the Flemish name Antwerpen used thereafter by the neighbouring settlement-now-city in honour of the soldier’s bravery. A beautiful baroque fountain a stone’s throw away from the river – or should that be “hand’s throw” away? – takes pride of place in the city’s Grote Markt, illustrating the preferred explanation for the origins of the city’s name.
So popular, and apparently convincing is the legend that the image of a severed hand has been used as the symbol of the city for centuries, even appearing on Antwerp’s civic flag. Iconic hand emblems can be found across the city, from a gothic water-well next to the city’s cathedral…
…to a huge modern sculpted stone hand along Meir, the city’s main shopping street. The striking red façade of the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS for short), Antwerp’s largest and latest museum (opened in 2014), is covered in hundreds of ceramic disembodied hands to celebrate the city’s identity.
Antigoon is not the only slewed beast to be remembered in Grote Markt. Opposite the Brabo Fountain is a row of fine Renaissance-style guildhalls dating back to the nineteenth century. The tallest and most striking of these buildings is at No 7, originally the headquarters of the Guild of Saint George, Antwerp’s oldest and most prestigious militia guild. It is topped with a golden statue of the guild’s patron famously slaying a dragon.
Antigoon is also not the only legendary Flemish giant of Antwerp. A short walk from Grote Markt, close to the banks of the Scheldt stands the Steen. Parts of this castle date back to the twelfth century making it Antwerp’s oldest building. Originally a gatehouse to the city fortress, the Steen has been used as a prison, a saw mill and a fish warehouse in centuries past, and until recently was the home of the Nationaal Scheepvaartmuseum (National Maritime Museum). Leading up to the entrance of the Steen stands a tall and rather comical looking statue of Lange Wapper, a mischievous giant whose actions although seemingly rich in moral intent, were as times voyeuristic and rather perverted.
Many tales describe Wapper specifically targeting Antwerp’s drunks and naughty children. Shrinking in size and taking on the guise of a fellow drunk or child, Wapper would relentlessly tease his victims and lead them around the city for hours before dramatically revealing his true identity (and stature) and abandoning them far from home.
Other stories tell of Wapper turning himself into a baby in an attempt to drink milk from a mother’s breast for reasons I have yet to find out in my research. More disturbingly, there are tales of Wapper leading lovers to their death after watching them through their bedroom windows having sex with partners who they were not betrothed to.
Just above the original gate to the Steen is a rather worn relief of a figure believed to date back to the second century. This figure is known as the Semini, believed to be possessed with virility and was regularly visited and worshipped by local infertile woman desperate for a child. When the Spaniards took back Antwerp from Protestant rebels in the late sixteenth century, the reinstated Catholic clergy were appalled by the relief but chose not to remove it from the gate for fear of local retaliation by Protestant sympathisers. Instead, they purposely removed Semini‘s penis, symbolically making the relief impotent. Yet, even today true Antwerpians like to call themselves Semini’s children.
Before the short-lived Protestant rebellion, Antwerp was a predominantly Catholic city and was in the process of building a huge two-spired cathedral dedicated to its patron saint, the Virgin Mary. In 1521, the cathedral was completed but with just one spire, the second was to be built at a later date. However, during the rebellion a few years later, the building suffered serious damage. Once the Spaniards defeated the rebels and the city became Catholic once again, the Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal was rebuilt but the construction of the second spire was permanently postponed. The reason given for abandoning the second spire was to save money, but some say that the real reason was because the sight of a single spire acted like a symbolic middle-finger gesture towards the rebels.
The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens had strong connections in Antwerp and painted notable pieces for the cathedral that are still displayed there today.
So devout is Antwerp to its patron saint, beautiful statues of the Virgin Mary dating as far back as the sixteenth century, can be seen on almost every street corner of the city. These corner statues are usually found just above a street lamp, a detail once significant in the days when city districts had to pay large taxes for the supply and use of public street lighting. If a district could argue that a lamp found by such a statue was not used to illuminate the street below but was in fact a votive being offered up to the statue looming over it, then the tax was apparently wavered.
Palatial train stations, precious metal overkill and a public passageway where singing is forbidden: things to see, do and don’t (for free) in Antwerp