Deceiving the Devil with a Rope of Sand

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1174
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2020

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Contents

  1. Michael Scott (Scotland).

  2. Mitchell Scott (England).

  3. Donald Duival and the Devil (England).

  4. A Wild Legend (Scotland).

  5. The Devil and the Schoolmaster at Cockerham (England).

  6. Tregeagle (England).

  7. The Shoemaker, the Tailor, and the Sailor (Germany).

  8. The Cheated Devil (Germany).


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Michael Scott

Scotland

Michael Scott was, once upon a time, much embarrassed by a spirit, for whom he was under the necessity of finding constant employment. He commanded him to build a cauld, or dam-head, across the Tweed at Kelso: it was accomplished in one night, and still does honour to the infernal architect.

Michael next ordered, that Eildon hill, which was then a uniform cone, should be divided into three. Another night was sufficient to part its summit into the three picturesque peaks which it now bears.

At length the enchanter conquered this indefatigable dæmon, by employing him in the hopeless and endless task of making ropes out of sea sand.




Mitchell Scott

England

Long before Sir Walter Scott had given increased celebrity to the wizard feats of his clansman, Michael Scott, his fame had penetrated to the remotest villages of Northumberland. Similar anecdotes, but somewhat varied in the telling, have been transmitted of him there, as well as in the hamlets on the northern side of the Borders.... The Northumbrians call the magician Mitchell Scott.

The fame of Mitchell is great in that district for having beat the devil and his myrmidons by the well-known device of employing them to spin ropes of sand, denying them even the aid of chaff to supply some degree of tenacity to the incohesivo material.




Donald Duival and the Devil

Scotland

The devil is apt to be cheated by clever mortals.... Donald Duival had a hand-to-hand fight with the devil, and overcame him. He would not allow him go until he gave him whatsover he asked. This was myriads of elves shut up in a box, or a book with clasps, as some say. The box or book was somehow opened, and every one of the elves rushed out, invisible, one version says, and kept crying, "Obair, obair -- work, work."

He set them to thrash his corn, but that was done in a minute. He then asked them to build him a "square" or farm out-house, and it was put up in no time. Then he asked them to strip the hill above his house of its heather. Before he could look about him, they had all the heather at his side.

He then asked them to build sand mounds in the sea, and they were spoiling the harbours when he stopped them and asked them to make ropes of the sand. This they are still working at, it is said, for they have not been able to hit on a method of making ropes of sand purely. Could they be allowed to use straw along with sand, they would succeed.




A Wild Legend

Scotland

The parish [of Kemnay] is believed by some to derive its name from the Kembs, a chain of low rounded sand-hills, which run along the northern boundary at some distance from the Don, and terminate on the borders of Cluny, on the southeast.

A wild legend accounts for the peculiar broken character of these hills or rather hillocks, but it is almost forgotten in the parish, so that it is well nigh impossible to get a correct version of it. It appears, however, that the devil challenged an old witch to make a rope of sand. How she contrived to outwit his Satanic Majesty is unknown, but win the wager she did. The devil's rope broke, and remains to this day in the Kembs of Kemnay.




The Devil and the Schoolmaster at Cockerham

England

It is said that the arch Spirit of Evil once took up his abode in Cockerham, and so scared and disturbed the inhabitants of that quiet place, that at length in public meeting, to consider how to free themselves from this fiendish persecution, they appointed the schoolmaster, as the wisest and cleverest man in the place, to do his best to drive the devil away.

Using the prescribed incantation at midnight, the pedagogue succeeded in raising Satan; but when he saw his large horns and tail, saucer eyes, and long claws, he became almost speechless.

According to the recognised procedure in such cases, the devil granted him the privilege of setting three tasks, which if he (Satan) accomplished, the schoolmaster became his prey; if he failed, it would compel the flight of the demon from Cockerham.

The first task, to count the number of dewdrops on certain hedges, was soon accomplished; and so was the second, to count the number of stalks in a field of grain.

The third task was then proposed in the following words, according to a doggerel version of the tradition:

Now make me, dear sir, a rope of yon sand,
Which will bear washing in Cocker, and not lose a strand.

Speedily the rope was twisted of fine sand, but it would not stand washing; so the devil was foiled, and at one stride he stepped over the bridge over Broadfleet, at Pilling Moss.

The metrical version of the legend is scarcely worth printing.




Tregeagle

England

There is a popular story attached to this lake [Dozmary Pool], ridiculous enough as most of those tales are. It is, that a person of the name of Tregeagle, who had been a rich and powerful man but very wicked, guilty of murder and other heinous crimes, lived near this place; and that, after his death, his spirit haunted the neighbourhood, but was at length exorcised and laid to rest in Dozmary Pool. But having in his lifetime, in order to enjoy the good things of this world, disposed of his soul and body to the devil, his infernal majesty takes great pleasure in tormenting him, by imposing on him difficult tasks; such as spinning a rope of sand, dipping out the pool with a limpet shell, etc.


The Shoemaker, the Tailor, and the Sailor

Germany

Once there were a shoemaker, a tailor, and a sailor who came upon hard times. Then they made a pact with the devil: that he should fulfill all their wishes, but for this they signed away their souls. Thus they wished for endless money, good food and drink, and everything else that they could think of.

But the deadline soon came, and each one thought of some task that the devil would be unable fulfill, in which case they would be free of their pact.

Thus the tailor demanded that the devil bring to him every trimming of cloth that he had ever cut off -- large and small -- in his previous tailoring. The devil should sew together into one piece every scrap that had ever fallen to the floor, and not a single stitch was to be visible. The devil soon completed this task and wrung the tailor's neck.

The same thing happened to the shoemaker, who demanded a single hide stitched together from the trimmings of all the shoes he had ever made.

However, the sailor gave the devil the task of making an anchor rope out of fine sand. The devil attempted to do so, but failed, and thus the sailor saved his own life and his soul.




The Cheated Devil

Germany

In a village there lived two brothers who led very wanton lives. After they had squandered all their money and property the devil came to them. He told them that he would give them a great pile of money that they could never use up. At the end of a year he would return, and they should give him a task. If he were able to fulfill this task, then they would forfeit their bodies and souls to him. If he failed to do so for even one of them, then he would give them a second pile of money equal to what he had already given them.

The brothers entered into this pact.

The younger brother purchased many horses, and from the entire countryside he hauled together a whole mountain of stones. To the contrary, the older brother did not give up his wild living.

At the end of a year the Evil One returned. The younger brother commanded him to blow apart the pile of stones with just three puffs. With only his second puff the devil blew all the sand in the pile into the sky, and with his third puff half the mountain and disappeared. Having done this he took hold of the man, and then flew with him to the older brother.

This brother was sitting in a tavern, and came outside only after much cajoling.

When the devil asked him for his task, this brother broke wind and said, "Catch that for me, and tie a square knot into it!"

That was too much for the devil. He had to release the younger brother and give them a great pile of money as well.

One might think that the requirement to tie a square knot was superfluous -- that in any event the devil would have been unable to fulfill such a task. But that is not true, as a simple peasant learned to his sorrow. He gave the same task to the Evil One, but without the square knot, and what happened?

A day passed, then a month, and then another month, and the devil did not return. The peasant felt quite safe, but at the end of an entire year the Evil One came running up, out of breath. He pulled out a feather, and behold: He had captured all the man's wind, to the last puff, and put it into the quill. And, of course, with that he had won the peasant's soul.

Another man from the same village had better luck. He commanded the devil to to collect and bring to him all the iron that had worn away from his plow as it had worked his fields. Knowing that he would not be able to do this, the devil threw the contract at the peasant's feet, and flew away.

The devil is also unable to spin a mountain of sand into a rope. Many individuals have escaped from him by giving him this task.




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Revised September 3, 2020.