When I was beginning my ministry in Magdeburg, a citizen's child died, and he did not have a Roman Catholic vigil performed, nor a death-mass sung, for these were expensive.
The devil intervened, for he gladly would have preserved Purgatorium and discursum animarum in Magdeburg. Every night at eight o'clock the devil came into the citizen's bedroom and cried like a young child. The man was distraught and did not know what to do.
The priests exclaimed: "Now you see what happens when you do not hold a vigil. The poor little soul is suffering."
The man wrote to me and asked what he should do, for he had read my sermon on the saying "You have Moses and the prophets."
I wrote to him that he should not believe the priests. He should let the entire household know that the sound of a child crying was the devil's doing.
Then the members of the household ridiculed the devil, saying "Devil, why are you here? Have you nothing better to do? Go back where you belong, into the depths of hell, you cursed spirit!"
Then the devil ceased immitating a child and instead stormed about, ranting and raving. He often appeared in the form of a howling wolf, but the children and other members of the household simply ridiculed him.
Whenever a maid went upstairs with a child, he would follow after them, clapping his hands, but they responded, "Hey, are you crazy?"
Finally Herr Jacob [Präpositus], an official in Bremen, came and resided with them. He wanted to hear the spirit.
The host said, "Just wait until eight o'clock, and you shall hear him. He will come for sure."
And that is what happened. The devil threw everything down from the stop of the stove.
Herr Jacob said, "I have heard enough. Let's go to bed now!"
There were two bedrooms next to each other. The lady of the house, the children, and the servants were sleeping in the one room. The host and Herr Jacob were in the other room.
Herr Jacob had just gone to bed when the devil appeared and teased him, pulling off the bed-cover. Herr Jacob was terrified and prayed fervently, while the devil stormed about on the floor.
Finally the devil went over to the poor woman in the next room. He teased her as well, running across her bed like a pack of rats.
He would not stop, so the woman raised up, stuck her a--- out of the bed, and let a f--- (politely stated).
Then she said, "Look, devil, here is a staff for you. Take it in your hand and go on a pilgrimage to your idol, the pope in Rome. Get an indulgence from him!"
And thus the devil was ridiculed. Thereafter the devil stayed away with his spooking, quia est superbus spiritus et non potest ferre contemptum sui [for the proud spirit cannot bear contempt].
While he was thus fretting, the devil appeared to him in the form of a man and asked him why he was so concerned. Would he be able to help?
The peasant said, "Dear brother, I have a great harvest in my fields. It should be cut and brought into my barn, but I don't want to give out my money to the workers. If you have any advice for me, let me hear it."
The devil said, "If you agree to be mine afterward, I shall bring all your grain into your barn."
The sly peasant, thinking that he could outwit the devil, answered, "If you can do three things that I ask of you, then afterward I will go with you wherever you want."
The devil agreed to this and asked what he should do.
"Good," said the peasant. "First bring all my grain into the barn, without damaging any of it. And after you have done that, bring to my house all the wood that is lying about in the forest and in the meadows. When you have done all this, I'll tell you what else you have to do."
The devil did not think that any of this would be difficult, and he completed these two tasks forthwith. He then returned to the peasant and asked what his last task was to be.
Now early that morning the peasant had eaten raw turnips so that he would be able to fart mightily. Then he let a great fart and said to the devil, "Listen, brother, catch that and tie a knot in it!"
The devil was unable to do this, so he went away and left the peasant sitting there by himself.
However, the carpenter told him that he had to fulfill one last request for him, and the devil agreed to this. With that the carpenter broke wind mightily and then told the devil to bring it back to him. The devil was not able to do this, however much he tried.
A whirlwind is just the devil flying along behind the carpenter's fart. For this reason a whirlwind is called simply "Timmerman's Fart." [Timmermann is Low German for carpenter.]
The first man hauled gigantic stone blocks down from a mountain from morning until evening, When his time was up and the devil came to get him, he told the devil to replace all the stones back on the mountain within one day. But the devil did not need a day. He finished the task in five minutes and took him away.
Then the devil came for the second fellow, who following the pact had gone immediately to a tavern where he joyfully spent every day eating and drinking to his heart's content, for he had all the money he could use. When he saw the devil coming he was full of good cheer and made no sign of getting ready to leave. The latter told him to make haste, for his time was up.
The fellow said, "Now, now, I still have some time. My hour hasn't come yet."
Walking back and forth in his room he finally broke wind mightily and then said to the devil, "Bring that back to me!"
The devil was not able to do this, and he left in an sour mood.
I cannot tell you what the third fellow did to defeat the devil. If you want to know, you'll have to ask the old tavern keeper at Steina. By now it will have come back to him.
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.
Before long he met up with a young fellow with fists like a pair of hammers, and the tailor knew at once who he was.
"Hello, Brother Smith, where are you off to?"
"Thank you, Brother Tailor. I'm just following my nose."
"Shall we go along together?"
And so they plodded along together.
Some time later they came upon someone else.
He was not as tall as the huge smith, but was still a a good head taller than the tailor.
As his cap and clothes were covered with white dust, they said to him, "Hello, Brother Miller, where are you off to?"
Thank you, Brother Tailor, thank you Brother Smith, I'm just going wherever my feet take me."
"Shall we go along together?"
And so they plodded along together.
Toward evening they came to a crossroad. The tailor's nose pointed to the right, and the miller's feet wanted to go to the right as well, so they made their way in that direction. But it was not the right way.
They came into a deep forest and did not know the way out again. Finally the pathway ended altogether, and they found themselves in a large meadow where there stood a large devil-stone. It was covered with green moss and was buried halfway in the earth.
The tailor said nothing, but the smith and the miller began to curse like soldiers.
"The devil take me!" shouted the one; the other added, "And let the devil take me as well!"
No sooner had they said this than from the trees there came a roaring and groaning sound, which curdled their blood.
Suddenly someone appeared before them, as if he had grown out of the earth. He was wearing a little green hat with a red rooster-feather on it. Although he was dressed like a hunter, it was obvious, even from the distance of a hundred feet, that he was up to no good.
With his right foot he scratched like a rooster on a manure pile, and then said, "I'm the one who is taking you away! But today has been a good day for me, so each one of you can demand something from me. If you ask me to do something that I cannot do, I'll lead you out of the woods. But otherwise you must go to hell with me!"
"You first," he said to the smith, who made a face like a cat in a thunderstorm, and did not know what to say.
"You're running out of time!" shouted the devil.
The smith stuttered, "Can you throw this big stone here into the clouds and then catch it with your right ear?"
Saying nothing, the devil grabbed the stone with both fists as though he wanted to squeeze it to death, and with one jerk pulled it out of the earth. He swung it up and down and then threw it into the clouds -- so high that it could no longer be seen. When the rock came hurtling back, the three of them jumped aside like billy-goats. The devil caught it with his right ear, then gently placed it back into its hole.
"What do you say to that?" he asked the smith, who was standing lamely by. The devil gave him a kick, and in a large arc he flew directly into hell.
"Now what's your task?" he asked the miller.
The miller's heart had fallen into his trousers, and he could think of nothing except for the large rock.
"Can you grind this large rock into flour?" he asked.
The devil grinned, then ground away at the rock with his teeth: Gurtsch, gurtsch. He had barely begun when there was nothing left of the rock but a pile of gray flour. The miller received his kick as well, and in a large arc he flew after the smith.
Now only the tailor remained. He was shaking over his whole body and was as white as a handkerchief.
"Now, Threadman, what have you decided?"
But the tailor could say nothing.
The Evil One looked at him with his fiery eyes and bellowed, "Say something, tailor, I don't have any more time!"
With that the tailor let out a sigh, a sigh from deep within his breast and so loud that it could be heard from afar. (Some folks say that he broke wind, but such people are rather crude.)
Then suddenly, and he himself did not know why, the tailor said, "Catch that and tie it into a square knot."
However, the sigh had long since been blown away by the wind, and the devil stood there like an ox before a gate. He had to let the tailor go. In his anger he stamped his horse-hoof foot to the ground. It opened up, and he fell head-first into hell.
Recovering from his fright, the tailor saw that he was all alone. There was nothing more to be seen of the smith, the miller, or the devil. If it hadn't been for the pile of stone-flour and the stench of pitch and sulfur throughout the woods, it all could have been a dream.
Then he took off, as though someone were chasing after him. He found his way out of the woods and happily returned home. He married a beautiful girl. My grandfather was at the wedding, and many times he heard the tailor himself telling this story. Therefore it certainly has to be true.
Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.
Revised September 3, 2020.