The Raising of Lazurus

The Raising of Lazurus
Vincent van Gogh

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Disclaimer: Reading for Insomniacs or Those Who Can't Get enough of 18th Century German Theologians




Ghost Theory Expounded Here
Have you experienced a sudden bout of misfortune?
Then your Heinzelmann has probably left you.

(This is the full article that will appear on FairyTaleChannel.org in abridged form, but with all the tedious quotes. This reading is definitely not for the faint of heart.)

What is a ghost? The answer probably depends on whom you’re talking to. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a ghost as “an apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” The dictionary goes on to explain that it is common for ghosts to appear to the living even though they are not really part of this world. Haunting seems to be crucial to their existence for they either spook a person or a locality, but often both at the same time. Ironically much of what we know about the nature of ghosts comes to us from theologians or treatises seeking to dispel widespread belief in them. One of the earliest harangues against ghosts can be found in Deuteronomy 18: 10 – 11, cf. 13: “No one shall be found among you who makes a son or a daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.” Despite these assaults on popular tradition, belief in ghosts has flourished and these spirits often appear in fairy tales wandering the earth or even possessing a living person (on this website see Gratzug, Crossing to Remagen, True Eckart and Frau Holle, Ghost as Married Woman, Ghost of Boyne Castle).

Unwittingly, perhaps, the Catholic Church promoted belief in ghosts in their doctrine of purgatory, which provides a middle place for souls transitioning between life and death and thus a physical place for ghosts to reside. It was Augustine who finally endeavored to bring the teachings of the church into sharper focus and overturn popular superstition. He did not deny the existence of ghosts but did argue instead that their appearance and activity were due to demonic forces acting in the world. This rationale was continued in the 18th century when the German theologian Johan Ernst Schubert outlined his Ghost Theory in two treatises: The Appearance of Souls after Death and The Location of Souls after Death. Here Schubert explores the various notions of what happens to us at death and the nature of ghosts in general. Yale University has several items in its rare books collection written by Johann Ernst Schubert, but I am not aware of any library in America that holds this particular work. I am therefore posting excerpts of translations of Schubert’s text because they illuminate folk beliefs reflected in many of the fairy tales posted here.

What is the essence of a ghost? To Schubert this question is inextricably tied to the nature of our souls. He says “The soul is in and of itself an invisible essence. If we assume that the soul is located near the ashes (or decay) of its body, you still would not be able to see it or sense it. If it appeared, the soul would either have to re-construct the body, in which it formerly dwelled or build a body from other material to be able to appear to the eyes of the living. The one thing is just as impossible as the other….. "
Thus souls are not body-builders, but instead more like invisible clouds or transparent vapor. Schubert envisions them hovering close to their limp and decaying bodies, or, by extension inhabiting the cemetery.

Why are we so preoccupied with the notion of ghosts? This is also clear to Schubert:
“… From the minute we hear that a friend has died, whom we knew intimately, we cannot think about him without secretly feeling pangs of terror. Judge for yourself, gentlemen, whether or not this is based on the belief that the souls of the dead can appear to the living! (see The Shroud, Bread Shoes). Because who would be so silly as to fear lifeless bodies, which no longer have the strength to move? The whole world must admit that no one is safer than in the company of the dead. The living can harm us if they choose. But the dead don’t even have the strength to insult us. One would have to imagine that the souls of the dead congregate by the graves of their decaying bodies (which they used in this life) and that they are now wandering ghosts, which only appear to terrify the living….”
(He contradicts himself a bit, arguing in the first paragraph that souls are invisible and hover near their bodies only to ridicule the idea here.)

Can dead souls appear as ghosts? The answer is a bit convoluted, but worth slogging through:
“If (dead souls) could move their former bodies and use these bodies as they wished, then men could readily rise from the dead if they wanted to. But this motion of the dead body would constitute a reunification with the soul and a (ghostly) manifestation of this type would signify a return to the present life. This cannot be the case because precisely at the time one imagines an appearance of a ghost, the dead body is resting in its grave and a large part of the body has already turned to dust and decay. And even more impossible is for souls to return to their prior bodies, which they relinquished many hundreds of years before. The (souls) would have to collect their (body) parts from all regions of the world if they wanted to reinvigorate and reawake their bodies.”

What happens to the soul at death? Schubert admits there is no unanimity among scholars on this point but nevertheless takes a stab and perhaps inadvertently leaves the door open regarding all manner of ghosts:
“At the moment my soul leaves the protection of this body, it either receives another body to accompany it into eternity or it remains cut off from all other earthy matters until the time arrives when the dead come forth from their graves. If according to God’s wisdom it has acquired (zuzueignen) a new body, which would be fashioned according to its future needs (Beschaffenheit), it would perhaps be possible for it to establish, with God’s help, a visible body and show itself in this form to the living. But this is a belief I cannot support. I admit that among wise scholars there are those who believe that departed souls can move into new and subtle bodies and remain there until they can return to their own abandoned body. But (disembodied) departed souls have no need of such an abode. They can still remember their past deeds without such a dwelling; they can still recognize whether they are in the company of God’s chosen or among the damned; they can still behold God’s visage but also feel his wrath and sense the unbearable terror of a gnawing conscience. Union with a body would only mean that feelings of joy or damnation would be multiplied by external (bodily) sensations. This will only happen when the Almighty Judge awakes the flesh of the dead and holds His terrible Last Judgment. I admit that at the start of their existence incarnating ghosts require bodies. But for those who have already lived in a body and have collected a multitude of varied experiences, one must draw another conclusion. And this is the case for where the departed souls of men reside.”

Do ghosts ever appear to men?
“I don’t want to deny that up to now such figures have been seen among men, often being likened to the dead and some have claimed they are souls. I think this is possible although many appearances of this kind have either been a fraud or the mistaken fantasy of fearful men. You don’t have to believe that the souls of the dead are those reappearing in this life for we are not the sole spirits to be found on this earthly sphere. There are a great number of other creatures of this kind. They do not always live among us, but also seldom care to leave us. These spirits are very strong and powerful. Their purpose devised by a wise and almighty creator stipulates that they become unified with subtle, fast and invisible bodies. They do amazing things with the help of the same forces. Among their machinations I find this the least noteworthy, to make a visible body from the matter that they encounter everywhere, which is similar to a human form, to become one with this form and then to appear to humans. It follows that it is also possible to pretend to be a person who died several years ago and if it will benefit their purposes, to assure the living that they are the departed soul of this or that person, the name of which they must still know. This is a fraud which one would not experience from a saint or honorable spirit. When people have been terrified by such apparitions, this is the work of such a ghost, called by various names, Prince of Darkness or Master of the same realm.”

In other words, the re-appearance of a dead person to the living is possible but only through a demonic force or devil. But according to Schubert, there are three ways to combat encounters with such spirits:

“The evil spirit only appears in the form of a deceased person, where ignorance and superstition rule. This spirit does not come easily to those who walk in the light of truth. (for an example of such a person, see the Fairy Tale Frau Trude) .

There is not the slightest reason to fear such apparitions or to avoid places where one keeps the bones of our departed brothers. For it is not their souls, that are seen in this form. In view of the first comment, one must also point out that the devil never wakes the shadow of a dead person for the purpose of harming our body or attacking us. (The Skull taken from the Bone House, 125)

Thirdly, one must take great care not to become part of the number of godless and damned, in whose created form he has appeared. Because he has known his friends and foes in this life, it is possible to present himself as a god-fearing or godless person. It often is more advantageous to show himself in the form of a just and pious dead person than to wander around as the shadow of a villain. For this is a trick.” (Frau Trude)

So much for Schubert and his ghost theory. Vernacular literature offers a rich variety of ghosts that do not fit so neatly into his organized theology. The ghosts of fairy tales and legends haunt mountains, forests, lakes and even houses. They are not the dead stuff of Schubert's theology! In popular lore ghosts prefer the winter season and the time around All Soul’s Day (November 1) was believed to be the time it was easiest to breach the barrier between the living and dead. In cold and dark months they can often be seen running merrily through a courtyard, riding in a sled, playing music or dancing in the parlor. They love to wear colorful garb adorned with bells and seek human companionship. The Swedish Tomte is one such ghost. He has the stature of a child but the face of an aged man. Often appearing in a red cap, an offering of tobacco or a shovel-full of earth would appease such a house spirit. These ghosts, known as kobold, shellycoat, brownie or heinzelman love to play tricks on the mortals with whom they live. They love to laugh and perform mundane household chores for the family they haunt. But their persistent appearances are often perceived as an annoyance, their rituals a nuisance or even an embarrassment to the master of the house. Instead of receiving a small boon, house spirits are often rebuked with unkind words or jokes. This enrages the kobold and causes him to leave the family he has been associated with for centuries. When the ghost leaves, the family’s fortune collapses. In German folk traditions these spirits are often named Huetchen, Hopfenhuetel, Eisenhuetel, Heinz, Butz or Butzenhaensel. These ghosts like to live in the stable, cellar, silo or even a favorite tree. Often they have their own room in the house under the eaves and a soft indentation can be seen on the pillow or chair where they sleep. Or they may even sleep in the same bed as the humans, with whom they live. On Thursday these spirits will not tolerate any wood-cutting or spinning. They love to play the harp, talk to everyone in the household and reveal secrets. Because of this familiar relationship, they are often referred to as uncle or father-in-law. But there is also a more sinister form of these spirits, who are then referred to as poltergeist or rumpelgeist.

Here are the various names of house ghosts or spirits in saga and fairy tales:

Aitvaras (Lithuanian house ghost, his manifestations include black rooster, black cat or flying snake. A devil or evil spirit, who demands the soul of the person he haunts and then richly rewards him (Faust))
Bukura e dheut (Albanian fairy. Helpful and very powerful. Only a god or angel is capable of performing the same functions. Her castle is guarded by magical animals. Sometimes she has a demonic connection. She is protected by a three-headed dog.)
Brownie (Scotland and Northern England: a house ghost. Similar to a Heinzelmannchen in Central Europe. In Cornwall, Brownies are responsible for guarding bees.)
Domovoj (Russian, ghosts incarnating from dead souls, they protect the family and its cattle).
Druden (Truden, Old Norse trotha meaning “treten or “stossen”) (A female demon appearing especially in Southern Germany and Austria who disturbs sleep or performs evil magic. The word “Trute” is middle-high German for “ghost” and is synomynos with “witch”. The pentagram or “Drudenfuss” was a protection against evil spirits (Goethe’s Faust).
Elves (Old English Aelfen. There were 3 types: Mountain Elves, Water Elves or Forest Elves. The English tradition characterizes them as lovely female spirits and they appear in German literature in this form in the 17th century. They love music and dance. Herder and Goethe refer to their king as “Erlkoenig”
Haltia (Finnish “protector”, ghostly protectors of a house, mill or hearth/fire. The person who first establishes or builds a house or who first made fire in the house can become this house spirit.
Heinzelmaennchen (Germany, Central Europe, helpful house spirits of gnome-like stature with red or green clothing and usually with red hair. They are indefatigable helpers of house occupants and provide good advice. Mean spirited comments or curiosity drive them away. Also called Heinzlein (short form for Heinrich) and a euphemism for a demon or devilish spirit.
Juma (Finno-Ugric, Finnish for ghosts of the earth, water, wind and house.)
Kobold (Central European, beneficient house spirit. Name means chamber, house (English: cove) and old (walten/ruling), the spirit ruling the house. Also appear as mountain spirits, who rob silver and return valueless cobalt. They work as invisible spirits toward the good of the house.)
Majas gars (Latvian house ghost. Even in the 19th century Latvian farmers hoped to achieve the beneficence of such spirits through prayer and offering, thus assuring the fortune of the house and its inhabitants.
Para (Finnish folk tradition, a house ghost that often appears in the shape of snake, frog or cat; responsible for multiplying a household’s fortunes in the form of grain, milk, butter and also money.
Pukis (Lithuanian dragon helping function as house guide and treasure-bringing dragon.
Shellycoat (Scottish kobold, loves bells on clothing, likes to play tricks and laugh, acts as true servant but presence perceived as annoyance)
Teraphim (Hebrew for house idol, bestowing charity and riches to a family, assumes a position of honor and leadership within the family, assures family’s inheritance and also serves oracular purposes. Book of Judges.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Near-death Experiences and Glimpses of the Afterlife in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales and saga are keenly interested in every day themes of human existence and so it is not surprising that death and mortality figure prominently in these stories. Humans have probably always had a powerful urge to explain what happens after death and many of the earliest myths do just that. Many ancient traditions describe death as a physical journey or crossing to the afterlife. A complex geography of the netherworld was created with the dead traveling to either Britannia, Jutland or Scandinavia. The idea of a soul living on after the body has died is ancient. But in the early Middle Ages a type of story was introduced whose sole purpose was to provide proof of the afterlife. Based on accounts of near-death experiences, a new genre of story arose, sometimes referred to as medieval vision literature. After reading these early near-death narratives, some striking similarities with earlier pagan traditions are evident. Notions of death in fairy tales and saga seem to blend heathen folk beliefs and Christian attitudes. These stories provide us with a picture of both enduring and changing beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Edda describes a bridge over which the souls of the dead must tread. This bridge is thatched or covered in bright gold and it trembles and groans underfoot as the dead cross over. There is a bridge leading down into Hel as well as one leading upward into the realm of the gods (for more about these themes, see the link in this website concerning the Rainbow or Bifrost). According to Jacob Grimm, the ancients believed that a person had three souls, two were tied to the body and were lost at death but the third survived. Abandoning its decaying body, this soul proceeded on to the afterlife. Death does not kill in ancient traditions, but rather, is a messenger that announces the end of life and accompanies the soul to its new realm. Souls were both received and drawn to Wuotan, Frouwa, Ran and Hel, water spirits, angels, elves and the devil. Dying warriors were taken to the abode of the gods but descriptions of this place are few. Some accounts mention that it glitters with precious gems, gold and silver; others that the roof is made from tilted spears. Often, the dead had to arrange their own passage and cross a body of water, as described in Crossing to Remagen (see below for full text). In other tales, the dead joined a huge throng, processing a great distance on foot (Gratzug). The living were crucial to the well-being of the dead in that they supplied the departed loved one with the clothing, equipment, money or even boat to make the difficult journey. The sound of dead souls disembarking from the shallop in Crossing to Remagen is reminiscent of the footfalls heard when the dead crossed the rainbow in the Edda. That a specific or unusual sound should be equated with death is also a core element in modern near-death experiences (or NED). According to R. Moody in Life after Life, noise or sound is often the first sensory impression of a near-death experience. In the story of Adalbert the Compatriot (full text below), we find many of the key elements of a modern day near-death experience. According to Dr. Carol Zaleski in Medieval Otherworld Journeys, near death experiences were essential to the early church for proving the existence of life after death and the soul’s immortality. In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great uses near-death experiences to underscore the veracity of church teachings: the afterlife is a real construct, you will be punished for your sins, masses and good works on behalf of the dead are important and each person is called to live a more holy life. (To find out more, read the full web article by Dr. Zaleski Medieval Otherworld Journeys). As described in many modern accounts of near-death, Adalbert the Compatriot seems to grasp immediately that he is dead. His first experience is described as moving through the air being guided by angels. He is aware of a tunnel or shaft in the center of the earth and he meets spiritual beings who accompany him on his journey. He is given a life review and confronted with the deeds of his life time. He reaches a physical boundary defined by a stinking river and must cross a bridge to enter into the heavenly realm. A guardian angel or messenger of death appears as guide and plays an authoritative role in Adalbert’s new existence. He determines that Adalbert must return to the realm of the living. Adalbert is terrified and does not wish to return. A similar reluctance is often mentioned by survivors of near-death experiences. And like modern-day accounts of near-death, Adalbert’s ordeal transforms him and causes him to make profound changes in his life. By contrast, the Swiss folktale Path to Paradise is not concerned with proving the notion of an afterlife. Rather, the narrative reads more like a service manual outlining the different stages of death. Unlike a typical near-death experience, the narrator does not seem to know exactly when he dies. But his soul, or something like it, continues to exist even after he has relinquished his body. In this story the Rhone River seems to represent a natural boundary of sorts and crossing it might be understood as a metaphor for dying. The tinsmith's initial guide in the afterlife is a frightening figure with green, bulging frog-eyes but later in the narrative, angelic beings appear. This tale includes elements that are common in many traditions concerning death: attraction to a distant light; the aerial bridge; a crossing; a wild and raging sea/body of water; ultimate calm and serenity in death; a beautiful and joyous garden of paradise; distinct sounds; and perhaps most interestingly, sensory perception including smelling fragances and tasting food. The sensations of eating and smelling described in this tale might suggest that the tinsmith has experienced a physical resurrection. And like Adalbert, there is a sorting out of souls into those deserving and not deserving paradise. Similar to the Grimm’s fairy tale The Shroud, death does not sever the attachment between the dead and their loved ones. The tinsmith wonders how his family is faring and whether they will ever be rejoined in paradise. An ongoing concern of the dead for the living might have provided comfort to the audience of these tales. But The Shroud also includes an ancient pagan notion that likens death to sleep. Only when survivors abandon their grief and release the dead, can their sleep be peaceful The child also carries a candle and like the candles on a birthday cake, fire and light are often used as metaphors for a human being’s life force. In fairy tales and saga we see changing views about the responsibility of the living toward the dead: instead of conferring practical utensils that will be needed in the afterworld, survivors in medieval literature are encouraged to say masses and perform good works here on earth. And in later tales the living are instructed that the best thing for a survivor is to more or less get on with life. This may have something to do with changing attitudes toward death: from physical journey to spiritual transformation.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Rainbow

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Many different myths explain the appearance of a rainbow in the sky. In the Edda, the curved arc is a celestial bridge, over which the gods tread. That is why it is called Asbrû or more commonly Bifröst (or Bilrost, Old-high German: piparasta). Translated this means the trembling, shaking path. Röst expresses a certain length of time or distance, comparable to our hour or mile. It is the best of all bridges, made from three sturdy hues. But one day it will collapse when the world ends and Muspell's sons travel over it. The tail of this bridge extends into Himinbiörg, Heimdallr’s residence (or Himmelsberg = mountain of heaven). It is the link between the realm of the gods and Midgardr (realm of humans). Heimdallr has been appointed guardian of the bridge and consequently, is heaven's guard. He protects the bridge from Hrimthursen and mountain-giants so that they cannot enter heaven via this bridge (Hrimthursen = giant, demonic beings with large ears, capable of causing both physical and mental illness). In this function as celestial road, the rainbow brings to mind the wagon, chariot and path the gods use to travel across the sky. The bridge is purported to make a rattling sound when the horses and wagons of dead men cross it. Christianity spread the belief expressed in the Old Testament that the heavenly arch or rainbow is a sign of the covenant God made with mankind after the great flood. But here folkloric and Christian traditions mingle. Folkloric tradition also adds the motif of a golden key or treasure marking the spot where the rainbow touches the earth. Gold coins or Pfennig pieces fall from the rainbow and are found on earth. These golden coins are called regenbogenschüsselein or patellae Iridis; it was thought the sun dispersed them by means of the rainbow. In Bavaria the rainbow is called heaven’s ring or sun ring and the golden coins are called heaven’s ring bowls or cups. Romans saw the rising arc of the rainbow as something that actually sucked water out of the earth: “bibit arcus pluet hodie”. Superstition dictated that one must never point to the rainbow (or for that matter, the stars in the sky). Building or making something on top of a rainbow signifies a vain, fruitless undertaking. A Finnish song tells of a maiden sitting on the rainbow and weaving a golden robe. The pagans told the same story about the piparasta. Serbian folk tradition says that everything masculine passing under the rainbow becomes feminine and everything feminine becomes masculine. The Welsh tradition sees the rainbow as a chair for the goddess Ceridwen. The Lithuanian tradition refers to the rainbow as Laumes josta or the belt of Lauma (Laima = goddess of fortune), dangaus josta (heaven’s belt) and kilpinnis dangaus (heaven’s arc). Folk belief in the Polish region of Lithuania describes the rainbow both as messenger and advisor after the flood. In some regions of Lothringen it is called the courier of Saint Lienard or couronne of Saint Bernard. According to Estonian folk tradition, the rainbow represents the sickle of the thunder god. The Greeks mention a demi-goddess, Iris, who is dispatched as messenger from heaven over the rainbow. Indian tradition recognizes the goddess Indra in the colorful arc of heaven. And according to the belief of Germanic tribes, after death the souls of the just are accompanied by their guardian angels over the rainbow and into heaven.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In this Lithuanian Fairy Tale, Death Comes as Godmother


Godmother Death


A man and a woman were living in abject poverty when God gave them a gift of a small child. They thought to themselves: “Whatever shall we do! We are so poor, we can't even afford to baptize this child?” When they invited people to the baptism, everyone declined the invitation. One morning the husband rose early and when he left his house he thought to himself: “The first man I meet, he shall be the godfather of my child!”

And so it was! He met a man, asked him to be godfather and told him of his dire need. The man accepted. The husband heartily thanked him and continued on his way to find a godmother. He met a young and pretty wife. He wished her “Good Morning!” and asked her to be the godmother. She also did not refuse. When the godparents had assembled and brought their gifts, they held a huge feast and baptized the child. When they had all left the celebration, only the godmother remained behind. She thanked the parents for asking her to be the godmother and inviting her to the baptism and said “How shall I reward you? No one except you has ever invited me to a baptism. Do you know who I am? I am the Goddess of Death. I shall make this child a doctor. As soon as a person is sick, take it upon yourself to heal him! When you approach the sick person and see me standing at his feet, he will recover and become healthy again. Then you must promise to heal him! But if you see me standing at his head, don’t make the effort, for I will kill him. If you do as I say, you shall become a famous doctor and you will become enormously wealthy!”

When the poor child grew to be a man he healed many people. No one saw the Goddess of Death except him. If he saw her standing near the sick person’s head, then he said that further help was futile. Everyone soon loved him very much. He became a famous doctor and was very rich. But one day the daughter of a king became deathly ill and the king called the doctor. When he arrived, he saw the Goddess of Death standing by the head of the princess. He pleaded with her to be beneficent and remove herself and let him heal the sick maid for then he would receive a handsome reward from the king. But the Goddess replied that he should move away because she intended to kill the princess. The doctor became angry at his godmother and fitted the bed so that it could be turned. Then he placed the princess in the bed. When the Goddess of Death stood at her head, the doctor simply turned the bed around and the Goddess found herself standing at her feet. When she walked around to stand at the princess’s head once more, he turned the bed around so that she stood by her feet. He tormented the Goddess in this way for some time until she left the sick maid enraged. The doctor healed the princess, was highly honored and received a good reward.

But when he went home, the Goddess of Death, his godmother, approached him and said: “You did not listen to me. Lay down, I shall kill you now.”

“But dear godmother,” the doctor replied, “Give me three days time! I want to make my own coffin and lie down inside. Then you can kill me.”

She consented. The doctor had a very strong coffin made and strong clasps forged. When three days were up, the Goddess of Death returned and asked “Well! Have you prepared yourself for death?” The doctor lay face down in the coffin. She could not kill him and ordered him to lie on his back. When he rolled onto his back, he raised his knees so that the Goddess of Death could not close the coffin. “You don’t even know how to lie down!” the Goddess said. “Let me show you!” He jumped up. The Goddess of Death lay down inside and stretched out as straight as a reed. The doctor seized the lid of the coffin and slammed it shut, locking the Goddess of Death inside. Then he took it into the forest, dug a deep hole and buried the Goddess of Death inside.

She lay there almost seven years. No one found her the entire time. He remained a very famous doctor, because no one was dying anymore. One day children were watching their flock in the forest and heard sighing below the earth. They all decided to dig and see who was there. They dug up the coffin, opened the lid and found a living woman inside, who was now completely desiccated. Since that time she has been a terrible sight to behold. She thanked the children for freeing her, sat down on a stone near the path and waited for the doctor to come by. She sat as if she were a beggar woman, concealing her face. The doctor came by, stopped in front of the woman and commanded her to say an “Our Father”. When the prayer was over, she said “Amen,” killed the doctor where he stood and took him home. I know this because I was also in attendance at his funeral and enjoyed the wonderful food spread out on the table for his guests.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A near-death experience described in the story of Adalbert, the Compatriot

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Adalbert, the Compatriot Adalbert, the compatriot, was getting on in years. The time came when it was believed he was dying, for he lay as lifeless as a dead man for an entire night. But when the sun rose and he was about to be buried, he came back to life. Those standing round his bed fled in terror. But the risen man went into the church and remained there a long time, praying on his knees. He saw and heard nothing and did not notice that a throng had gathered round him. Only when he was addressed directly by one of the crowd did he finally cry out “Oh you foolish and godless men. What torture awaits you in the afterlife!” Adalbert’s words and warnings occupied the thoughts of all those around him, but most of all, Priest Mandel, Abbot Sponheim and Prior Joachim. These three clergymen went to Adalbert’s dwelling and he told them what had happened the night before. After his death, he said, several angels guided his soul through the air. Large sparks whirled around them in every direction like snow flakes. These were innumerable devils desiring nothing else but to push him into the blazing fire encircling them. But the good angels warded off the devils. Every sin he had ever committed was known to the bad and good angels alike. But these sins appeared even more terrible to him, even if he had considered them insignificant in his earlier life. Once when he was traveling to Kreuznach he met a beggar who asked him directions. He responded but did not describe the path in enough detail. The beggar had to spend several hours wandering around lost in the forest. According to Adalbert the Compatriot, it was for this that he was punished in a way he could not even describe, even if he were given one-hundred tongues. And because of another mistake, which he had hardly considered an error before, the devils threw burning coals on him with loud laughter. He thought this punishment lasted at least four-hundred years and burned him in a most terrifying way. In the end an angel was given him as guide and this angel led him to the place of eternal damnation. In truth he had not been dead four-hundred years but rather only a single night. But during this time innumerable souls were pushed into hell and he thought so many could hardly have died in just one-hundred years. In the center of earth, Adalbert the Compatriot saw a horrible shaft filled entirely with souls and from this shaft flames emerged and extended into heaven. The devils swirled around and in between them. Crying, wailing and horrible cursing resounded from the depths. The angels spoke to Adalbert the Compratriot “Whoever is enclosed herein, never emerges again”. The angel also showed Adalbert purgatory. Adalbert looked into a deep, deep valley, into which flowed a large, stinking river. Over this river stretched a thin and slippery bridge from one mountain to the next, higher than if four church towers of Kreuznach Cathedral were stacked one atop another. This bridge was only two feet wide and then fell down steeply to the center, only to rise again sharply on the other side. But the souls who sought to cross this bridge were many. Some fell at the beginning. Others fell in the middle. Still others fell at the end into the raging waters below. Horrible dragons and snakes waited below and the heads of the damned could be seen held in their jaws. Others fell next to monsters according to the degree of their sinning, either falling on their head, neck or knee. Many were able to recover quickly and make their way through the river and safely ashore. Those who were able to reach the bank looked much more beautiful than before. They were received joyfully by angels and led to the palace of heaven. But those who started the journey laden with gold, fell at the very beginning. Because it was impossible for them to turn around, they had to struggle terribly to get ashore. They were engulfed in the tumult of the putrid waters for years until they finally reached the river bank, completely debilitated. Adalbert saw one very beautiful soul quickly cross the bridge with sure footing. That was Monk Theodobert, the angel said. He loved nothing on earth but the dear God himself. Now the angel took Adalbert’s hand and led him to the realm of the saints. The flock of heavenly beings wanted Adalbert to stay with them. But the angel who brought him over said: “He must go back to earth so that he can confess and atone for his sins and return to us much happier in several years.” Adalbert the Compatriot was terrified and cried bitterly to no avail. After he had told the three clergymen all this, he subjected himself to the rules of strict penance. He built himself a hut of wood and lime in the forest near Dahlen and lived there seven years in complete abhorrence of the flesh. The Abbot of Kreuznach, the Prior of Hildesheim and the Priest of Mandel founded a cloister for nuns between Rockshain and Braunweiler to memorialize him. It is now called Katharinenhof.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gratzug

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org
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(Der Gratzug: A procession of the dead over mountain and through valley. According to Swiss folk tradition, whoever encounters such a “Volch”, will be visited by a dangerous illness. Also referred to as “Totevolch”.)

There are paths, roads and corridors through the mountains, on which the souls of the dead travel in long ghostly processions. These deathly processions are called Gratzug, also folk walk or symphony. Whoever falls into such a buzzing or whirring train of ghosts or is taken by surprise by such a procession, often falls victim to a dangerous illness and suffers from it for weeks or months. People believe they can recognize these well-worn corridors and paths in the landscape. One ghost path purportedly winds through the Tschingel Valley and has ninety-nine different segments. The ghosts appear wearing the clothing they wore when they were carried to the grave, or in the robe which was presented to their death guardian or given to the poor of the community in their memory. A deceased person, who is not well-dressed when he is interred or is only partially dressed or who did not receive a God’s garment (as these gifts are called), also appears in the Gratzug as poorly dressed or lacking dress, without a coat or hat or may even walk barefoot. In the Visper Valley region of Switzerland, a man who was once sleeping alone at home heard someone call out his name three times around eleven o’clock at night. The voice whispered softly that he should get up and go to the field where he had just cut down larch trees. He should remove them immediately so that the Gratzug would not be hindered but would find a clear path. He believed he recognized the voice to be that of his deceased father. He responded immediately and said he would go as quickly as possible and remove the obstruction. He got dressed, climbed the path in large strides and began work immediately. When he had removed the last tree from the path he heard the same voice say urgently: “Quickly, quickly, move to the right side of the path!” With all his strength he pulled the last round piece of wood out of the way and sat down exhausted on the trunk. Promptly a faint buzzing sound could be heard, which soon swelled into a loud roar. As the sound approached it sounded like an entire army praying the rosary. Drumbeat and whistles like a slow death march could also be heard and in midst of the throng; the cacophony of music echoed off the cliff walls. Then he heard crying and laughing voices, a whirring sound and whispers. At first only a warm breeze blew round him but then suddenly a blast of wind blew through the wood, causing his hair to stand on end. Try as he may he could distinguish nothing other than black shadows passing by quickly. But when the clock in the church tower struck twelve he saw figures walking along the path in twos and fours, as many as the width of the path would allow. Some were well-dressed but others walked barefoot. Still others were weighted down by a haphazard assortment of garments, some even wore two coats. One woman balanced a heavy ball of butter on her head instead of a hat. One of the deceased was missing the belt of his white garment. The robe fluttered in the wind and he had to hold it together with his hands. When the ghost train passed, the clock in the valley below struck three and then the prayer bell sounded. The ghost procession had lasted three long hours as measured by the tower bell.

The Path to Paradise (A Swiss Folk Tale)

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Many years ago a poor tinsmith, who repaired pots and pans for a living, could no longer feed his family for he could not find work. Wherever he went he only found people living in greatest need and terrible suffering for the plague had infested villages and towns. Often entire families were struck down, including cattle and even the family dog. The survivors ran wildly through the streets as if insane or sat lifeless in front of their houses, stunned and brooding. The poor tinsmith had passed through all the villages on the shadow side of the Rhone River and had sold only a few small scraps. Tired and dejected, he crossed the Rhone River and thought he would now try walking on the sunny side. But the plague had wreaked havoc there also. He climbed up the mountain slag panting and gasping for breath. From time to time he had to wipe the sweat from his brow. His only wish was to lie down and rest, rest for all time. In the village he was now passing through it was deathly still. The house doors were wide open; the evil smell of corpses wafted through the alleyways and made him shudder. No one responded to his knocking. On the threshold of the last house sat a man as old as the stone cliffs, he had a long snarled beard and green, bulging frog eyes. Sadly, the little man gazed up and said in a rattling voice: You don’t need to come here with your tin pots, you won’t sell any here, the plague has been guest in this abode. Yes, I am the sole survivor of the village and I won’t buy anything from you. I have plenty of good and bad utensils – in excess. I have become a rich man, the entire village belongs to me and me alone,” and he laughed wildly and struck his forehead with his palm. Then he glared at the tinsmith with the same sad gaze. “Should I show you the way to where you will find work?” The tinsmith shifted the heavy bundle on his back and said: “Yes, I’d be happy to find some work, but I’m sure there is nothing anywhere and the pots will stay on my back!” The little man made a sign that the man should follow him. He placed a thick hazel branch between the pots and tin pans, shifted the bundle with the stick and plodded behind the little man, who slowly climbed the mountain. Every ten steps the man stopped, coughed but finally led him to an open field, which was easy to climb at the far end. But the front end of the field was a jagged drop-off, filled with fir trees. The sun had just sunk behind the mountain and it would soon be dark. The little man pointed to a narrow path, which led from the base of the cliff, on which they stood, in a straight direction but always upward, over the broad Rhone Valley to the peak of the Eliserhorn, which projected through the dark mass of the cliff with its snow-covered peak. On the peak of the Eliserhorn there burned a light, not larger than a star in heaven. The little man cried: Take this path and always, always follow the light! A deep, dark night will break and evil spirits will seemingly build broad bridges for you; you must not lose sight of the light, otherwise you will sink into endless night. The ocean lies below the bridge. It will remain calm as a green mountain lake, then it will become red and then roaring and finally will become sulfur-yellow and putrid. The raging waves will beat over your path and threaten to devour you.” The tinsmith thanked the old man as the distant, remote light started to awaken new hope within him. He grasped his bundle of pots tightly and with the little light firmly in his gaze, he began his climb up the narrow aerial path. His stride was slow and deliberate, his steps long so that the tin ware on his back rattled with each step. He looked at the green shimmering surface of the water, which extended before him like an endless sea. But soon the sea glimmered a purple-red; the waves began to curl over and became larger and larger. Soon, they began to rock back and forth and he became dizzy. He began to stagger and stumble but found his equilibrium again and again with his hazel stick. When he looked into the water’s depths for only a heartbeat, he thought he would crash into the waves, but he immediately gazed up into the radiating light and stepped weakly in that direction. He paid no attention to the beautiful, wide and brightly illuminated bridge, which enticingly rose from the water and formed a bridge to the narrow and bumpy path he was on. The closer the little light appeared on the peak of the Eliserhorn, the brighter it burned. The path was now enveloped in the depths of darkness and below him the waters raged like an ocean storm. The yellow shimmering waves rolled with unceasing force against the ramp he walked on. Now the water breached the path and threatened to tear him away. The spray, hitting the granite cliff edges, splashed up striking his face and enveloping him in a veil of foam, drenching his clothes. The putrid water took his breath away. But now he was close to the light and with his last strength, he pushed himself through the foaming surf and the waves, which rose up to his left and right were as high as towers. The sea suddenly subsided below him. A great calm descended all around. He was at his destination and stood on a large, level place. Before him stood a mighty church built of snow-white marble. In its beautiful, richly decorated façade he counted twelve doors. The tip of the tower seemed to extend into the heavens and shone like a star, in white blinding light. It all seemed so solemn, so beautiful and holy that he had to fold his hands in prayer. Over the entrance gate could be read: Church of Eternal Joy. On both sides of the gate guards stood in white shirts with golden collars, on which were written S Z (sit Zion). The one held a pick on his shoulder, the other a shovel. The tinsmith wanted to put down his heavy bundle to enter the church properly, as is fitting; but the guards motioned to him he should take everything with him. So he stepped through the gate with the rattling bundle and entered a richly illuminated hall filled with people. It looked like the inside of any church at home, but only here it was much larger, majestic and solemn. The hall at the front and back was crossed by a passage. On the right side of the front passage he noticed a funeral pyre. He set down his tin ware as quietly as possible, kneeled completely exhausted and covered in sweat on a riser and listened to the beautiful heavenly music, which came to him from the choir. The sound was like the rushing of the organ, and other times was like the rushing of a forest stream, which fell from the heights and then rushed peacefully through a green meadow. The souls in the passage were enveloped in white robes, turned their backs to the gate and held both hands before their faces. The souls in the passage before the choir, under which he was also standing, supported their arms on the prayer stool and did not pay any attention to him. The tinsmith hardly dared breathe, he was gripped by such solemn feelings. As far as the eye could reach, everything was rigid, unmoving figures. Only in the choir before him was there bright laughter as if the angels themselves were rejoicing. It must be wonderful there; he had to reach that spot. He stood up, but two white-clad youth approached him, softly taking his arm, they said he must not enter the choir so dirty. He should wait a bit. He sank back onto the prayer bench, but when the youth vanished, he tried going forward again. For something pulled him there with irresistible force. Two med appeared in red robes and said to him “Follow us, you are not yet clean, we will wash you and cleanse you, then when you may join the throng that sing and praise in the choir!” They led him by the arm through the throng, which silently made room for him. Proceeding through the door of a passage, he climbed the steps of a high tower and opened the door to a lovely room. On the table lay a scourge and tightly twisted cords. On the wall stood washing utensils and fastened to the wall sparkling faucets could be seen. The men removed his clothes, filled the barrels with water: first tepid and then boiling water. They scourged him with the whip so that his skin fell off, then they splashed him with ice-cold water and immediately his body was covered with young, fresh skin. The horrible pain turned into a wonderful, heavenly feeling of comfort. After this, they dressed him in a soft muslin shirt and said he could now pass through the door. The led him down the steps and through the passageway to the singing saints, asked him to kneel on a large, cushioned riser and ask the Heavenly Father for a beautiful cap of eternal life. He should imagine something of indescribable beautiful and then wish for it. He knelt in the choir and fervently prayed the Our Father so that he soon forgot to wish. He was hardly done, when the youth were once more at his side and waved to him to follow so that he could make room for another. They stepped out to the temple and arriving before its doors, wandered almost a half hour on a beautiful and wide street. High trees with large leaves marked the path. The trees were of such splendor, he had never laid eyes on such marvels. Between the branches he saw a garden inestimable size, from which the most wonderful sweet smells of flowers emanated. He drank in the fragrance and could not get enough of it. Before him stood vineyards, which hang ripe with fruit. “Eat your fill,” the guide said to him. He picked a grape but each time he raised the fruit to his lips, he felt already satisfied. When he had tried every assortment, one of the youth presented him with the key to his house, which hung on a green band. He would now be the occupant of this house. He could not really say what it looked like, for the splendor glimmered before his eyes and completely enveloped him. He only saw how enormous carnation stalks from the darkest red to the brightest snow-white hung over the wall. When he asked whether he could open all doors with this single key, the youth replied, this one key opened every door. Then he asked whether he could not fetch his family and his relatives and friends, because it was so beautiful here and he felt so happy. The youth replied: “They will come but not all. Do you see over there in front of the large gate to the cathedral? There stands the bishop with his tall miter cap and long staff. He has been standing there for a long time and must wait even longer, for he won’t be let inside!” He nodded his head and thanked them once more. Then the youth vanished.

The Crossing to Remagen

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org
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The Crossing to Remagen Like the ancient Greeks who believed that Charon rowed the souls of the dead in a narrow boat over the Cocytus River to the underworld, many heathen tribes in Germany believed that the realm of the living and dead was separated by a body of water. The departed made a journey across this body of water to their final destination. Britannia was said to be this land of the dead and Frisian yeomen purportedly helped dead souls make this final crossing. Living among the Frisian nobility who made their home on the North Sea were farmers and fishermen, who had always been free from paying any tax for they performed a service that was valued more than money. These yeoman were entrusted with ferrying the dead to Britannia. The job always passed from one household to the next. At midnight the farmer or fisherman would hear a knocking on his door and then a muffled voice call out. He got up, went to the beach and there he saw what looked like an empty shallop. Boarding the heavy boat, he gripped the oar and immediately began the crossing. The oarsman would notice that the shallop seemed to be completely loaded down and barely remained one finger’s breadth above the water. But not a single passenger was ever seen. The crossing lasted only one hour but normally if they had been traveling in their own vessel it would have taken an entire night and a day. Once on shore in Britannia, the ghostly crowd disembarked and the shallop became so light that only the very bottom touched the water. The Frisians never saw anyone in the boat during the trip and when they arrived they never saw anyone disembark. But once on shore in the land of the dead they heard a voice call out the names and the tribes to which the dead belonged as they departed. The nighttime crossing of gnomes over the Rhine River (described below) is reminiscent of the crossing of dead souls to Britannia. This tale may incorporate elements of the earlier pagan tradition: The story was told in the beginning of the nineteenth century, that an oarsman living in Erpel on the Rhine River heard a knock at his door one night. Opening the door, an invisible presence asked for immediate passage across the river. As he climbed into the boat he noticed it sinking deeper and deeper into the water although he did not see anyone else boarding. When the vessel was only one finger’s breadth above the water’s surface, the ferryman was ordered to shove off. Upon landing on the bank of the Rhine River at Remagen, the boat immediately began to rise in the water and the oarsman could hear heavy footfalls as the boat emptied. His passengers were the gnomes who had lived in Glenberg near Linz from time immemorial. But they had been offended and that is why they were abandoning their ancestral home. They moved across the Rhine River, where -- nobody knows.

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 109: The Shroud

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A mother once had a seven year-old son, who was so dear and beautiful that no one could gaze upon the child without loving it. She cherished this child more than anything on earth. Now it happened, that the boy was overtaken by a sudden illness and dear God took the child to be His own. The mother was inconsolable and cried night and day. But after the child had been buried, it appeared at night in the very places it had sat and played while living. When the mother cried, the child cried and when morning came, it vanished. The mother did not want to stop crying and so one night the child appeared in the white shroud; the one it wore when it was laid in its coffin. Wearing a little wreath on its head, it sat at the foot of the bed and said “Oh Mother, do stop crying, otherwise I shall not be able to fall asleep in my coffin, for my shroud cannot dry from all your tears falling on it.” The mother became frightened when she heard these words and did not cry any more. The next evening the child appeared again, carried a little candle in its hand and spoke “See, my little shirt will soon be dry and I will have peace in my grave.” The mother commended her sorrows to dear God and bore her misfortune quietly and patiently. The child came no more but slept in its little bed under the earth.

Death and the Afterlife in Fairy Tales and Saga

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Fairy tales and saga are keenly interested in every day themes of human existence and so it is not surprising that death and mortality figure prominently in these stories. Humans have probably always had a powerful urge to explain what happens after death and many of the earliest myths do just that. Many ancient traditions describe death as a physical journey or crossing to the afterlife. A complex geography of the netherworld was created with the dead traveling to either Britannia, Jutland or Scandinavia. The idea of a soul living on after the body has died is ancient. But in the early Middle Ages a type of story was introduced whose sole purpose was to provide proof of the afterlife. Based on accounts of near-death experiences, a new genre of story arose, sometimes referred to as medieval vision literature. After reading these early near-death narratives, some striking similarities with earlier pagan traditions are evident. Notions of death in fairy tales and saga seem to blend heathen folk beliefs and Christian attitudes. These stories provide us with a picture of both enduring and changing beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Edda describes a bridge over which the souls of the dead must tread. This bridge is thatched or covered in bright gold and it trembles and groans underfoot as the dead cross over. There is a bridge leading down into Hel as well as one leading upward into the realm of the gods (for more about these themes, see the link in this website concerning the Rainbow or Bifrost). According to Jacob Grimm, the ancients believed that a person had three souls, two were tied to the body and were lost at death but the third survived. Abandoning its decaying body, this soul proceeded on to the afterlife. Death does not kill in ancient traditions, but rather, is a messenger that announces the end of life and accompanies the soul to its new realm. Souls were both received and drawn to Wuotan, Frouwa, Ran and Hel, water spirits, angels, elves and the devil. Dying warriors were taken to the abode of the gods but descriptions of this place are few. Some accounts mention that it glitters with precious gems, gold and silver; others that the roof is made from tilted spears. Often, the dead had to arrange their own passage and cross a body of water, as described in Crossing to Remagen (see below for full text). In other tales, the dead joined a huge throng, processing a great distance on foot (Gratzug). The living were crucial to the well-being of the dead in that they supplied the departed loved one with the clothing, equipment, money or even boat to make the difficult journey. The sound of dead souls disembarking from the shallop in Crossing to Remagen is reminiscent of the footfalls heard when the dead crossed the rainbow in the Edda. That a specific or unusual sound should be equated with death is also a core element in modern near-death experiences (or NED). According to R. Moody in Life after Life, noise or sound is often the first sensory impression of a near-death experience. In the story of Adalbert the Compatriot (full text below), we find many of the key elements of a modern day near-death experience. According to Dr. Carol Zaleski in Medieval Otherworld Journeys, near death experiences were essential to the early church for proving the existence of life after death and the soul’s immortality. In his Dialogues, Gregory the Great uses near-death experiences to underscore the veracity of church teachings: the afterlife is a real construct, you will be punished for your sins, masses and good works on behalf of the dead are important and each person is called to live a more holy life. (To find out more, read the full web article by Dr. Zaleski Medieval Otherworld Journeys). As described in many modern accounts of near-death, Adalbert the Compatriot seems to grasp immediately that he is dead. His first experience is described as moving through the air being guided by angels. He is aware of a tunnel or shaft in the center of the earth and he meets spiritual beings who accompany him on his journey. He is given a life review and confronted with the deeds of his life time. He reaches a physical boundary defined by a stinking river and must cross a bridge to enter into the heavenly realm. A guardian angel or messenger of death appears as guide and plays an authoritative role in Adalbert’s new existence. He determines that Adalbert must return to the realm of the living. Adalbert is terrified and does not wish to return. A similar reluctance is often mentioned by survivors of near-death experiences. And like modern-day accounts of near-death, Adalbert’s ordeal transforms him and causes him to make profound changes in his life. By contrast, the Swiss folktale Path to Paradise is not concerned with proving the notion of an afterlife. Rather, the narrative reads more like a service manual outlining the different stages of death. Unlike a typical near-death experience, the narrator does not seem to know exactly when he dies. But his soul, or something like it, continues to exist even after he has relinquished his body. In this story the Rhone River seems to represent a natural boundary of sorts and crossing it might be understood as a metaphor for dying. The tinsmith's initial guide in the afterlife is a frightening figure with green, bulging frog-eyes but later in the narrative, angelic beings appear. This tale includes elements that are common in many traditions concerning death: attraction to a distant light; the aerial bridge; a crossing; a wild and raging sea/body of water; ultimate calm and serenity in death; a beautiful and joyous garden of paradise; distinct sounds; and perhaps most interestingly, sensory perception including smelling fragances and tasting food. The sensations of eating and smelling described in this tale might suggest that the tinsmith has experienced a physical resurrection. And like Adalbert, there is a sorting out of souls into those deserving and not deserving paradise. Similar to the Grimm’s fairy tale The Shroud, death does not sever the attachment between the dead and their loved ones. The tinsmith wonders how his family is faring and whether they will ever be rejoined in paradise. An ongoing concern of the dead for the living might have provided comfort to the audience of these tales. But The Shroud also includes an ancient pagan notion that likens death to sleep. Only when survivors abandon their grief and release the dead, can their sleep be peaceful The child also carries a candle and like the candles on a birthday cake, fire and light are often used as metaphors for a human being’s life force. In fairy tales and saga we see changing views about the responsibility of the living toward the dead: instead of conferring practical utensils that will be needed in the afterworld, survivors in medieval literature are encouraged to say masses and perform good works here on earth. And in later tales the living are instructed that the best thing for a survivor is to more or less get on with life. This may have something to do with changing attitudes toward death: from physical journey to spiritual transformation.

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 44: Godfather Death

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org
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A man once had twelve children and had to work night and day to earn even the most meager sustenance of mere bread for his children. When the thirteenth child was born, he was filled with overwhelming despair. He ran out to a well-traveled road and decided to ask the first person he met to be the child’s godfather. The first person he met was the Dear God himself. God already knew what was troubling the man and said “Poor man, I pity you. I will raise your child from the baptismal font, will care for it and make it happy on earth.” The man replied: “Who are you?” “I am the dear God.” “I don’t want you to be the child’s godfather,” the man said, “you give to the rich and let the poor hunger.” The man said this because he did not know how wisely God distributed riches and poverty. He turned from the Lord and continued on his way. He soon met the devil, who asked him: “Whom are you looking for? If you desire me to be the godfather of your child, I will bestow gold galore and furthermore, grant every worldly desire.” The man asked “Who are you?” “I am the devil.” “I don’t want you to be the child’s godfather,” the man said, “You lie and tempt people.” He continued on his way. Soon dry-boned Death approached him and said: “Take me as the child’s godfather.” The man asked “Who are you?” “I am Death, who makes everyone equal.” The man replied, “You are the right one. You take the rich and poor without distinguishing between them; you shall be the godfather of my child.” Death responded “I will make your child rich and famous. Whoever has me as friend, shall not want.” The man replied: “This Sunday is the baptism. Come at the given time.” Death appeared as promised and stood as proper godfather. When the boy grew up, his godfather appeared to him and said he should follow. He led him into the forest, showed him an herb growing there and said “Now you shall receive your gift. I will make you a famous doctor. When you are called to a sickbed, I will also appear next to you each time. If I position myself at the head of the sick person, you can speak boldly. You will bring him back to health and will give him some of this herb. He shall recover. But if I stand at the foot of the ill person, every help is for naught. Take care that you do not give him the herb against my will. Things could go badly for you.” It was not long until the youth became the most famous doctor in the world. It was said that he only needed to look at a sick person and he immediately knew what would happen, whether he would become healthy again or would die. People came from far and wide, bringing their sick loved ones and gave him so much gold that he was soon a rich man. Now it happened that the king became ill. The doctor was called and was to say whether recover was possible. But as he approached the bed, Death stood at the foot of the patient. No herb could help anymore. “If I could just trick Death,” the doctor thought, “he will of course be angry, but because I am his godchild, he will probably look the other way. I’m going to try.” He grabbed hold of the ill man and turned him around in bed so that Death now stood at the man’s head. Then he gave him some of the herb and the king recovered. But Death came to the doctor and made an angry and dark grimace. He threatened him by poking his bony finger in the air and said “You pulled the light from my eyes. This time I will ignore it because you are my godchild, but if you dare disobey again, you’ll be in for it and I shall carry you off myself.” Soon thereafter the daughter of the king became seriously ill. She was the king’s only child . He cried day and night until he was blinded by tears. He let it be known that whoever would save his child, would become her husband and inherit the crown. The doctor came to the bed of the patient and saw Death at her feet. He should have remembered the warning of his godfather, but the tremendous beauty of the princess and the thought of becoming her husband filled him with joy and so he turned a deaf ear on all the warnings. He did not notice Death giving him angry looks, raising his hands in anger or threatening him with his bony fist. He raised the ill girl and placed her head were her feet had been. Then he gave her the herb and her life’s force returned immediately. When Death saw that he had been robbed of what rightfully belonged to him, he lunged toward the doctor in long strides and said “It’s over for you! Now it’s your turn.” He grabbed him with his ice-cold hand. His grip was so firm that he could not put up a struggle but had to follow him to his underground cavern. There he saw how thousands upon thousands of lights burned in immense rows. Some of the lights were large, others half the size and still others small. Every moment several went out and others started up again, so that the flames appeared to be in a steady state of change. “You see,” Death said, “these are the life lights of men. The large candles belong to children, the half-size candles belong to married couples in the best years of their life. The small candles belong to old people. But sometimes children and young people also have a very small light.” “Show me my life light,” the doctor said, and thought his must still be quite large. Death pointed to a small stub, that was about to go out. Death said “See, there is your light.” “Oh, dear godfather,” the frightened doctor pleaded, “Light a new candle for me, do it for my sake, so that I can become king and marry the beautiful princess.” “That I cannot do,” Death replied. “First a candle must go out before a new one is lit.” “So take the old one and start a new one immediately so that it starts to burn when the other goes out,” the doctor begged. Death acted as if he wanted to fulfill his wish. He took a long, fresh candle in his bony hands. But because he wanted to take revenge, he slipped while lighting the new candle, the little stub fell over and went out. The doctor immediately fell to the floor and had now fallen into the hands of Death himself.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reading Godfather Death

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In the fairy tale Godfather Death (full text above), there is a supernatural bond between Death and the living that is established at birth. This link is so strong it is likened to kinship and is based on a pre-Christian tradition. Like the ancient Norns, Death bestows gifts of fortune upon the newborn and then accompanies the young protagonist through key stages of his life. Here, Death is conceived as a benevolent force actively shaping a person's life, creating human happiness and enjoying even more popularity than God himself. The sentence about “not knowing how wisely God distributes riches” was not part of the original version of the story and was added later. In subsequent Christian traditions, the saints took on the function that Death had performed in these earlier stories. We especially see St. Mary, St. Michal and St. John the Baptist filling the role that Death had occupied and acting as intercessors helping the soul navigate its path in the afterlife. This tale, reflecting an obsession with death that was evident in the Middle Ages in Europe, expressed both a longing to cheat death or at least to know the exact hour of one’s death. Last rites were very important to Christians in the Middle Ages. It was believed that if a person was prematurely anointed, he would be doomed to continue life as a walking dead person because the sacrament permanently terminated all human pursuits of the living on earth. As in many pagan traditions, the candle appears in this fairy tale as a symbol of life force. In Christian traditions candles were used to represent life, renewal and power over evil.

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 177: Messenger Death

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.com
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In ancient times a giant roamed the earth. One day he was walking down a well-worn country road when an unknown man suddenly jumped up before him and cried out “Stop, not one step more!” “What is this?” the giant exclaimed. “You are only a little dwarf that I can squash between my fingers. You want to block my path? Who are you, that you speak so boldly?” “I am Death,” the stranger replied. “No one can resist me. You, too, must listen to my commands.” But the giant refused to obey and instead, began wrestling with Death. It was a long and fierce fight, but in the end the giant gained the upper hand and beat down Death with his fist, so that he collapsed next to a stone on the road. The giant went his way and Death lay there defeated. He was so powerless that he could not get up again. “What shall happen to me?” he asked, “If I must lie here in the corner and can’t even get up? No one will ever die in the world again and it will become so filled with humankind that there won’t be enough room for people to stand side by side.” As he was thinking this, a young man came strolling down the lane. He was healthy and hearty, sang a song and glanced back and forth. When he saw the semi-conscious creature lying there lifelessly, he approached in pity. Helping him sit up, he poured a strong drink from his bottle to help him regain his strength. “Do you know,” the stranger asked as he sat up, “who I am and who you have helped get back up on his feet?” “No, the young man replied, “I don’t know you at all.” “I am Death,” he said. “I spare no one and can make no exception with you either. But you should understand that I am grateful. I promise you that I will not overtake you suddenly and without warning. Instead I shall send my messenger before I come and get you.” The youth replied, “That’s something. At least I shall know you are coming and can safely escape ahead of you.” He continued on his way, was happy and in good spirits and lived each day to the fullest. But youth and health do not last for long, soon illness and pain came. They tormented him by day and robbed him of his sleep by night. “But die I won’t,” he said, “for Death shall first send his messenger. I only wish the bad days of illness to be over.” Soon he felt healthy and once more began to live in joy. One day, someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and saw Death standing behind him. He said “Follow me, the hour of your departure from the world has now come.” “What!” the man replied. “Shall you break your promise? Did you not promise that you would send your messenger to me before you came yourself? I haven’t seen anyone.”“Silence,” Death replied. “Have I not sent you messengers in excess? Were you not visited by Fever, who seized you violently so that you trembled and shook before he threw you down! Did not Dizziness cloud your mind? Did not Gout settle in your joints? Did you not hear buzzing in your ears? And didn’t your teeth make your gums ache? Weren’t there times you saw only black before your eyes? And above all, did not my dear Brother Sleep remind you of me every night? Weren’t your slumbers as if you had already died?” The man did not know what to say. And so he accepted his fate and went off with Death.

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 176: A Lifetime

Translation: Copyright FairyTaleChannel.org
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When God created the world, he decided it would be fitting to set the life span of every creature. He called the ass, who asked “God, how long shall I live?” “Thirty years,” God replied, “how does that suit you?” “Ach, God,” the ass replied, “that is a long time. Just think of my laborious existence: I carry heavy burdens from dawn to dusk, drag sacks of corn to the mill so that others have bread to eat, for encouragement and refreshment I get nothing but kicks and beatings! Release me from a portion of this long time.” God had pity and gave him eighteen years. Comforted, the ass departed and the dog appeared. “How long do you want to live?” God asked him. “The ass thought thirty years would be too long, but surely you will be satisfied with that.” The dog replied, “God, is that really your will? Just think how I must run. It’s unbearable for my feet! When I have lost my voice and can no longer bark and my teeth and can no longer bite, what else is left for me but to run from one corner to the next and growl?” God agreed and gave him twelve years. Then the monkey approached. “Surely you want to live thirty years?” God said to him, “You don’t need to work like the ass and the dog but instead, are always happy-go-lucky.” “Ach, God,” the monkey replied, “it would seem that way, but in fact it’s not. When it’s raining millet I never have a spoon! I’m supposed to always perform happy tricks and make faces so that other people laugh. But when people give me an apple and I bite into it, it is always sour. How often does sadness really hide behind humor! I could never endure thirty years.” So God in his mercy decided to give him ten years. Finally man appeared. He was happy, healthy and hearty. He asked God to set his lifetime. “You shall live thirty years.” God said, “Is that enough?” “What a short time!” the man cried, “When I have finally completed building my house and a fire is burning happily on the hearth, when I have planted trees that are finally blooming and bearing fruit and when I can finally be happy about life, then I shall die! O God, extend my lifetime.” “I will add the eighteen years deducted from the ass’s life,” God said. “That is not enough,” replied the man. “You shall also have the twelve years of the dog.” “Still not enough.” “Well and good, I will give you the ten years of the monkey, but more you shall not get.” Man left but he was still not satisfied.. And so, man lives seventy years. The first thirty are his human years, they pass quickly. He is happy and content. He enjoys his work and is pleased with his existence. Eighteen years of the ass follow, he must bear the many burdens that load him down. He must carry the corn that nourishes others and endure beatings and kicks that are the only reward for his faithful service. Twelve years of the dog follow. He must lie in a corner, growl and has no teeth to chew. And when this time is over, the ten years of the monkey make up the final years of his existence. Man is dimwitted, crazy, does every manner of foolish thing and becomes the laughing stock of his children.