In this fairy tale for Easter: the blasphemy of harp playing, the incredible power of the first blossoms of spring, and a fairy vision.
From the village of Kesseling you can take the road near Weidenbach and travel toward Kaltenborn. About three hours past the AareRiver you arrive at the Castle of High Regard. This fortress belonged to one of the knights of Kaltenborn. Later in life this knight had to relinquish the fort to the Archbishop of Cologne, only to seize the property back from this powerful cleric when it became a well-fortified and protected fief. In the last century the ruins of the old castle finally vanished when the last of its owners abandoned it once and for all. These owners lived in Cologne but were not of the Hoacht lineage and did not bear the name.
In ancient times a wild and dissipated robber-baron lived at Hoacht. On the Eve before Easter he and his knights profaned the holy feast with vile dancing, harp music and gluttony. Suddenly the heavens blackened and the sound of their raucous boozing was interrupted with a loud roar. From black clouds came bolts of lightning and thunder could be heard louder and louder. All of the revelers whitened in fear and froze in terror. A lightning bolt hit the chamber and soon flames burst through the doors and windows. The walls crackled and caved under the terrible raging storm, finally crushing the assembled and burying them in the debris.
It was said the robber baron had unimaginable treasures of gold, silver and gems, also valuable utensils and objects hidden in the chambers of his castle. But all trace of such things had vanished in the rubble.
Many years after the fall of the castle, a knight appeared on the Eve before Easter. Alighting on the shore of the Rhine River, his oarsman told him the legend of Hoacht Castle. According to the saga, only one without blemish and pure of heart would be granted a vision of the castle’s treasures. This was the Easter Eve of legend and the oarsman urged the young knight not to hesitate but hasten up the path to the fortress before midnight.
Together oarsman and knight hurried up the stony path. It seemed to widen as they went along, until finally at the top of the mountain it opened into a huge chasm. There stood a maiden clothed in snow-white garments. She motioned to the knight with her hand that he should approach while she slowly placed a lily on the ground. If the knight had been thinking properly, he would have immediately seized the flower. But alas, he did not. She motioned a second time and pointed to a hidden spot below the ground.
The knight believed she was pointing to the place the treasure lay buried. That is why he approached the spot but left the lily lying where she had placed it.
At one o’clock there was a terrible noise. The robber baron of yore now stood before the young knight with drinking cup in hand, just as he had stood hundreds of years before. His drinking companions surrounded him, throwing silver and gold coins into the air. But before the knight and oarsman could pick up one of the gold pieces, they all vanished. The lily which the maiden had placed on the ground now became an enormous viper, with thrashing tail and hissing tongue. The knight and oarsman had to retreat from the mountain to safety and were not able to retrieve any of the castle’s treasures.
As they ran down the steep path to the river, scornful laughter followed.
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Intimations of Summer, Illustration Maurice Sendak
Fairy Tales for Palm Sunday
The Palm Sunday tradition of carrying and waving palm branches is reminiscent of Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem. But ancient European folk customs probably provide the basis for modern Palm Sunday celebrations. In fact ancient spring rituals tied to “palm” festivities can still be found in fairy tales and saga. This website provides two popular tales with Easter ritual as the backdrop: Jorinda and Joringel and the Bird Who Tells the Truth.
In German folk tradition, the word “palm” designated all manner of foliage associated with the new budding green blossoms of springtime. Three “palm” branches could signify three stems of boxwood or sallow, also known as goat willow. Often the native blossoms of hazel branches, juniper or even oak stems were referred to as “palms”. This "palm" custom seems to be tied to the belief that a mysterious life force lay dormant in seemingly dead twigs. Now in springtime, these invisible forces were gathering strength, revealed in the blossoms and buds of local flora. Imbued with miraculous healing and regenerative powers in fairy tales, these switches, branches or rods offer redemption and transformation to characters experiencing some sort of malaise, often life-threatening. By touching or stroking the person with the switch, branch or palm, the curative energy of the branch was transferred to the person, facilitating startling transformations in fairy tales. In Christian tradition, these first budding branches were carefully preserved after the spring Easter procession, and were often hung in the home behind the crucifix or in the window, where their blessing continued to flow out and touch both people and animals during the year. In pagan tradition, these first buds of spring were associated with the power to ward off witches and demons. The magical properties of the palm were said to keep goblins, pixies, water men and other malevolent forces at bay.
In ancient times dark-haired persons often traveled from Wales to the Swiss Alps. There they searched for gold in the cliffs and wild mountain streams. The local folk called these dark-haired visitors Venetians. They were popular among the Swiss because they were well-mannered and entertaining and told many stories about foreign lands and their city by the sea. But alpine shepherds thought it odd that these Venetians always carried leather purses round their necks. These little sacks were always filled with gold, even though the villagers themselves never found a single grain of gold dust despite all their searching. They knew that the Venetians were highly skilled and did a great deal more than eat rye bread.
It happened that such a Venetian, a plain-spoken little man, came every summer to Clarus, which is today a beautiful village near the alp called Glaernisch. As soon as the summer cow herders drove their herds into the high mountains, the Venetian Gnome followed. He helped the herders ladle out the milk, ate cheese and bread with them, and also slept in their wild mountain cabin. But while the cow herders kept watch over their cattle and made cheese and butter, the Venetian Gnome vanished between the cliffs and marched through streamlets and gathered stones that glistened in the bright sunlight. When his seven sacks were full, the Venetian disappeared but no one ever knew quite how it happened. When they all thought he was long gone, he reappeared on the alp and began collecting new stones in seven new sacks.
The herders thought the little man’s comings and goings a bit strange, but nothing more. One day, they decided to play a trick on the gnome. They secretly took one of his seven sacks and hid it in a place they thought he could never find. When the gnome returned in the evening from his gold search and entered the cabin, the Swiss herders were lying around on the grass outside. The gnome approached them: “I have noticed that you have hidden one of my sacks and the stones inside. Shall you fetch it, or shall I?” They laughed and replied “Go get it yourself!” To their amazement the little man ran directly to the spot under a steep drop-off where the cow herders had hidden his sack. Angered, the little man now returned the sack and the stones to the cabin.
As summer ended, the grass no longer grew so tall and snow hung in the air. The shadows were longer these days and the wind nipped at the cow herders’ cheeks. The Venetian Gnome took leave as he did every year. But this time he spoke to the herders in a friendly way: “I am returning to Venice. If one of you ever visit me there, I will give you a sack full of silver!”
The Venetian Gnome had hardly departed from the alps when the herders forgot his friendly invitation. Only one remembered; he was a poor man and owned a small parcel in the valley. He remembered the Venetian’s words. One sack full of silver would come in handy and help him care for his sick wife and many children.
When the herders now descended the mountain and returned to the valley, the larch trees and oaks had turned crimson and orange. But the poor herdsman quietly departed, crossed the river and the Gotthard Pass, until after a long march he arrived at the sea. In the distance he saw a city with many towers reaching into the heavens. It was the seaside city of Venice, about which the gnome had spoken so often.
When he arrived in the city, which only had a few streets because it was built in the middle of water on a few sand bars, he felt a bit strange because he did not know the house or street where the Venetian Gnome lived. He didn’t even know his name. Sadly he walked through several lanes and was already thinking about returning home, when suddenly someone tapped him on his shoulder. He turned around, and a small, distinguished gentleman extended his hand and welcomed him. He immediately asked how things were in Clarus and how the cow herders were faring, whereby he referred to many of the villagers by name.
When the poor herder saw the finely dressed little man, he recognized the unassuming Venetian Gnome, who had shared so many summer days in the mountains with him and his comrades. He was happy when the little man invited him to come to his house and find accommodations there. He was amazed at the beautiful house the Venetian took him to, it was made of marble and the walls glistened. In front of the windows there lay a dark canal and above flew snow-white doves. Now things were going well for the cow herder. He received every sort of food that he desired and wine that was as red as blood. He soon regained his strength.
It wasn’t long before the poor cow herder tired of the good life, although he could have spent the entire day lying in silken sheets in bed. His thoughts always returned to his wife and children.
One day he sat in front of the Venetian’s fine marble palace, looked sadly around and remembered his distant homeland. The Venetian came out of the house and when he saw him sitting there so dejectedly, tears came to his eyes and he said in a friendly way: “I think you are bored here in Venice! Or are you homesick?”
“That’s it,” replied the cow herder.” I am plagued with homesickness. I don’t know what to do.”
The Venetian laughed, led him inside his house into a chamber the cow herder had never entered before. There was a magnificent mirror hanging on the wall. “Look into the glass,” the Venetian said, “See how things are going in the village of Clarus!”
Wonder of wonders! The cow herd now saw the village of Clarus clearly before him. But he also saw his own homestead, his wife bathing the children and her eyes were full of tears because she was thinking about her husband.
The Venetian now said “Go home! I will give you enough provisions in gold or silver. If you prefer gold, I will you give it to you. If you want silver, then you can fetch it yourself from my treasury.” The Glarner herder replied “I only want a sack of silver, like you promised me in Clarus on the alp.!” And with the permission of the Venetian he went into his treasury and filled a sack with silver.
When the cow herder left the marble palace and departed, the Venetian gnome said to him: “Pay attention to that sack so that you do not lose it on your journey. And if you sleep in an inn, take it with you to bed and place it under your head.” The cow herd thanked his host for every good thing that had been done and made his way from the seaside city. He wandered higher and higher into the mountains and toward his home.
When he had walked an entire day and night threatened to fall once again, he had to find accommodations in a Welsh village . This was difficult because he was still far from his hometown and the sack he carried was very heavy. But he searched out an inn, went to bed and placed the sack of silver under his head.
When he opened his eyes the next morning he found himself in Clarus, in his own bed with a mattress stuffed with leaves. He heard his cuckoo clock ticking in the kitchen and in front of the cabin he heard his goats bleating! First he thought he had dreamt it all and had never been to Venice. But then he noticed something hard under his head and found the sack full of silver. He rushed to his wife and children who squealed in glee! And how happy his poor wife was when she found his strange pillow. The poor cow herd now became a rich man. His descendants still live honorable lives in Clarus but the villagers call them the family from Venice.
A long time ago there lived a king who had three sons. Two of them were smart and clever. But the third son did not say much. He was a simpleton and was also called the Dumbling. When the king had become old and weak and saw his end approaching, he did not know which of his sons should inherit the kingdom. So he said to them: Go out into the world and whichever one of you brings me the finest carpet shall be king after my death!” He did not want them to argue amongst themselves so he led them outside before his castle, blew three feathers into the wind and said “As they fly, you shall follow.”
One feather flew to the east, the other to the west. But the third feather flew straight ahead and did not go far. It soon landed on the ground. The first brother went to the right, the second to the left and they laughed at the Dumbling who stood still next to where his feather had fallen.
The Dumbling sat down and was very sad. Suddenly he noticed a trap door next to where the feather was lying. He opened it and found a stairwell, which he promptly descended. There he found another door. He knocked and listened to the voice he heard within:
“Maid, so green and fine,
Hutzel-bine’s little dog,
Hutzel-here, Hutzel there,
Quick run and see who’s there.”
The door opened and he saw a fat little toad sitting on the floor surrounded by a large number of little toads. The fat toad inquired what he wanted. He replied “I seek the most beautiful and finest carpet .” The toad cried out:
“Maid, so green and fine,
Hutzel-bine’s little dog,
Hutzel-here, Hutzel there,
Quick run and see who’s there.”
The young toad fetched a satchel and the fat toad opened it and gave the Dumbling a carpet that was more beautiful and fine than any that could be woven on earth. He thanked her and ascended the stairs again.
The other two brothers thought their youngest brother much too stupid to find anything to bring back. “So why should we work so hard?” they asked. From the first shepherdess they encountered, they took the coarse cloth she carried and brought it to the king. At the same time the Dumbling returned and brought his beautiful carpet. When the king saw it, he was amazed and said “According to law, the youngest should now own the kingdom!” But the two brothers would not give their father any peace and said it was impossible for the Dumbling to become king, because he was not intelligent enough. The father replied “Whoever brings me the most beautiful ring shall become king.” He led the three brothers out before his castle, blew three feathers into the air, and told the brothers to follow them. The two oldest brothers once again went east and west. But the the Dumbling’s feather flew straight ahead and once again fell near the earthen door. Again the youngest son descended to the fat frog and explained that he needed the most beautiful ring of all. The toad had her large satchel brought immediately and from this, she gave the youngest son a ring brilliantly shining with gems. It was so beautiful that no goldsmith on earth could have made it. The two oldest brothers had laughed at the Dumbling, who wanted to go out looking for a golden ring. They didn’t want to expend such effort, but instead took the nails out of an old wagon ring and brought them to the king. When the Dumbling presented his golden ring to the king, the father said again “The kingdom belongs to him.” The two oldest brothers would not stop bothering the king until he allowed a third condition to be made. The son who brought home the most beautiful woman as wife should have the kingdom. Once again he blew the three feathers in the air and they flew as they had the first two times.
The Dumbling descended immediately to the fat little toad and said “I must now bring home the most beautiful woman.” “Ay,” replied the toad. “The most beautiful woman is not immediately available, but you shall have her.” She gave him a hollowed-out yellow turnip pulled by six little mice. The Dumbling was exceedingly sad “What shall I do with that?” The toad replied “Just select one of my little toads.” So he chose one of the little toads and placed it in the yellow turnip. It was hardly inside when it became a beautiful maiden, the turnip had become a carriage and the six little mice were now horses. He kissed his maid, raced away with the horses and soon arrived at the king. His brothers soon followed. They hadn’t exerted themselves at all trying to find a wife, but rather chose one amongst the first servant girls they encountered. When the king saw them he said “The youngest shall inherit the kingdom after my death.” But the two oldest brothers once again complained to the king with their moaning. “We can’t allow the Dumbling to become king.” And they demanded that the one whose wife could jump through the ring lying in the middle of the ballroom should become king. They thought to themselves “Servant girls can do that. They are strong enough. But the delicate maiden will die jumping!” The old king allowed this also. The two servant girls jumped through the ring but were so fat they fell and broke their arms and legs. Then the pretty maiden jumped, whom had been brought by the dumbling. She jumped through the ring as easily as a deer and all complaining had to end. The youngest son received the crown and he ruled wisely for a very long time.
Near Matten in a village not far from the mouth of the Fermel Valley in Switzerland there lie the ruins of a mighty stone structure. The following legend is told about it: In ancient times the community wanted to build a church to honor St. Stephan. A site was found where the wall was to stand. But every night, to the terror of all involved, the entire day’s work of the industrious builders was destroyed. The villagers now decided to span their building tools in the yoke of a team of oxen while praying. Wherever the oxen remained standing, that is where God’s finger pointed and where the new church would be built. The animals forded the river and remained standing where the Church of St. Stephan was then constructed.
Alpine folk in Switzerland have preserved many legends about dragons and lindworms. In ancient times they dwelled in mountain caverns often raining down destruction on the valleys. Today when a mountain river breaks out of its banks, tearing in its torrent trees and rocks as it descends, people still say: “The dragon has flown out.” The following story is one of the strangest of all:
A barrel binder from Lucerne went out to find wood for his barrels. He became lost in a barren, remote area when night fell. Suddenly he slipped into a deep hole filled with mud. It was as if a spring fed its waters into the depression. On both sides of the floor of this cave were passageways leading into enormous caverns. When he wanted to examine these areas more carefully, to his horror he met two terrifying dragons. The man prayed fervently but the dragons wound their tails around his body. But they did him no harm. One day passed and then several. He had to share the dragons’ company from November 6 until April 10. He nourished himself on the salty moisture that formed on the cave walls. When the dragons sensed that winter was over, they decided to take flight. The first one departed with loud flapping noise while the other dragon also prepared itself. Seeing this the unfortunate barrel binder seized the tail of the dragon and was pulled upward as the beast flew out of the cave. Once above, the man let go and soon found himself in the city. To commemorate the incident he had a priest’s robe embroidered, which can still be seen in Saint Leodagar’s Church in Lucerne. According to church records, the story took place in the year 1420.
Grimm’s Saga No. 219: Knight Frankenstein and the Lindworm at the Fountain
In ancient times three brothers lived in the old castle of Frankenstein one-and-a-half hours distant from Darmstadt. Today you can still see their gravestones in the Oberbirbach Church. One of the brothers was named Hans, and his carved image standing on a dragon is still displayed in the churchyard. The village had a fountain, out of which both townsfolk and castle dwellers drew their water. But a horrible dragon nested near the fountain and the people could not fetch water if they did not first feed the dragon a sheep or cow. As long as the dragon was eating they could approach the water. Finally a knight by the name of Hans decided to put an end to this mischief. He waged battle with the worm until finally he was able to cut off its head. He wanted to bore through the rump of the dragon with his spear, which still lay wriggling. The pointed tail of the beast now encircled the knight’s right leg and pierced his knee socket, the only spot not covered by his armor. The entire worm was poisonous and Hans von Frankenstein now gave up his life.
From the Gesta Romanorum: The Slings and Arrows of Kingship
A very noble king reigned in ancient times. He was wise and rich and had a very dear wife. But the woman, in guilty love with another man, bore three sons outside of her marriage. These sons plotted viciously against the king and did not resemble the monarch in any way. Finally the queen bore a son from her union with the king and raised him. Now it happened that when the king’s days were over, he died and his royal corpse was placed in a coffin and sealed. After his death the four sons began to quarrel about who would rule the kingdom. Finally they agreed: they would go to an old warrior who was formerly an honorable scribe of the deceased king and do whatever he decided. And so it happened. When the warrior patiently had listened to all they said, he spoke: “Hear my judgment! And if you follow these words, all shall go well. It is now fitting that you remove the corpse of the blessed king from his coffin. Each of you shall then take your bow and arrow in hand. Whoever bores deepest with his arrow into the corpse shall receive the kingdom.”
This advice was well received by the sons. They dug up the corpse and removed it from its place of rest and fastened it to a tree. The first son, who shot his arrow, wounded the right hand of the king. The shot was so good, the onlookers almost immediately made him sole heir and ruler of the kingdom. The second son now shot his arrow and it more or less happily arrived very close to the king’s face. He thought with certainty that victory was now his. The third son shot his arrow and it bored through the king’s heart. He now thought the matter undisputed and he would certainly receive the kingdom from his brothers. When the fourth brother now stepped forward to take a shot, he sobbed uncontrollably and spoke with wavering voice: “Woe and misery, my dear father, that I must see your corpse wounded by your own sons. I shall never shoot the body of my father, alive or dead.”
When the fourth son had uttered these words, the dukes and all people of the kingdom lifted him on their shoulders and placed him on the throne as true heir of the kingdom. The other three were stripped of riches and wealth and driven from the country.
Hermann Hesse Selects Fairy Tales from the Gesta Romanorum:
Of Satan’s Wickedness and How God’s Judgment Often Remains Hidden
In ancient times a hermit, who piously served God day and night, lived in his cave. Now it happened that a shepherd was tending his flock next to this hermit’s cell. One day while the shepherd was overcome by sleep, a robber came and drove off his sheep. When the owner of the sheep returned, he asked the shepherd where his sheep had gone. The shepherd admitted he had indeed lost the animals, but he wasn’t quite sure how it had happened. When the owner heard this, he fell into a rage and killed the shepherd. When the hermit saw this, he said to himself: “See, dear God, how the owner has accused and killed an innocent man? Because you allow things like this to happen, I will return to the world and live like other men.”
After having these thoughts, he left his hermitage and went out into the world. But God did not want to ruin him, so He sent an angel in human shape to be his companion. When the angel met the hermit on the road, he said to him “My dear man, where are you going?” The hermit replied :”I am going to the city that lies before me.” The angel said to him: “I will be your companion on the journey, for I am an angel of God and have come to you so that we can walk together on this path." Together they made their way to the city.
But when they entered it, they asked a knight to provide shelter in the name of God. The knight received them cordially and humbly gave them food and drink, all the finest he had to offer. This knight had an only child, whom he loved dearly and the boy lay in his cradle. At night after they had eaten the evening meal, the sleeping chamber was opened and proper beds were prepared for the angel and the hermit. At midnight the angel got up and strangled the child in his crib. When the hermit saw this, he thought to himself: “This is not an angel of God. This brave soldier has satisfied our every need and has stilled our thirst. He had nothing except his innocent little son. And he killed this small babe.” But the hermit did not dare say anything.
In the morning, they both rose early and made their way to another city, where they were honorably received in the house of a burgher. This burgher had a golden cup, which he valued and of which he was very proud. At midnight the angel got up and stole the cup. When the hermit saw this, he thought: “I believe this is an evil angel; that burgher only did good things for us, and in return he stole his cup.” But the hermit said nothing, because he was frightened of the angel.
Early in the morning they got up and went their way, until they came to a river, over which a bridge was spanned. When they stepped upon the bridge, they met a poor man. The angel spoke to him: “My dear fellow show me the way to the city,” The poor man turned around and pointed in the same direction. But when he had turned around the angel grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him off the bridge, so that the poor man soon vanished beneath the waves. When the hermit saw this, he said to himself: “Now I know this is the devil, not a good angel of God.” What evil had the poor man done, and still the angel killed him! He now mulled over how he could be rid of him. But because he was frightened, he said nothing. When they arrived in the city in the evening hour, they entered the house of a rich man and asked him for a night’s lodgings in the name of God. But the rich man refused. The angel then spoke to the man:
“In the name of God, let us sleep below the roof of your house, so that wolves or other wild animals do not eat us!” But the man replied: “See, here is the stall where my pigs reside. If you desire it, you can sleep with them. But leave me; I shall not give you another place to sleep.” The angel replied: “Because we cannot find anything better, we shall sleep with the pigs;” and so it happened.
Early in the morning when they got up, the angel called to the innkeeper and said: “My dear man, here I give you a cup,” and with these words he gave the man the cup he had stolen before. When the hermit saw this he said to himself: “Now I know with certainty that he is the devil. It was a good man who received us humbly and from whom he stole that cup. Now he has given it to that rogue, who didn’t even give us a room for sleeping.” And so he said to the angel: “I don’t want to consort with you any more. I commend you to God.”
The angel replied: “Listen to me and then you may go on your way. When you lived in your hermitage, you witnessed how the owner of the sheep slew his shepherd. Certainly the shepherd did not deserve death, because another man had performed the crime. He should not have died. But God allowed him to be killed and through this punishment he avoided eternal death. He had committed a sin before, for which he never did penance. The robber, who escaped with all the sheep, will suffer eternal agony and the owner of the sheep, who killed the shepherd, shall repent for what he has done unwittingly, by richly donating alms and performing acts of kindness. Afterward, I strangled the son of the knight who had given us good lodgings. But you should know that before the child was born, this knight was the best alms-giver and performed many deeds of charity. But since the child’s birth, he has become frugal and stingy. He collects and hoards everything to make the boy rich. This child is the cause of his ruin and that is why I killed the babe. The man has become what he was before, namely a good Christian. Then I stole the cup from the man who received us so humbly. But you should know that before his cup was finished, no man walked the earth, who was more sober. But since he has been in possession of the cup, he is so happy to own it, that he drinks the entire day from it and is inebriated two or three times a day. That is why I stole his cup and now he is as sober as before. Then I pushed the poor man into the water. Know that the poor man was a good Christian. But if he had continued only a short way, he would have committed the mortal sin of murder. Now he is saved and sits near God’s throne in heaven. Finally, I gave the cup to the man, who denied us hospitality. You should know that nothing happens on earth without a reason. He only offered us accommodations with his pigs, and that is why I gave him the cup, and when he dies, he will sit in hell. In the future bridle your mouth and do not complain to God, because He knows everything.”
When the hermit heard these words, he fell down at the feet of the angel and begged for forgiveness. He then returned to his hermitage and became a good Christian.
In the next few weeks, the FairyTaleChannel will highlight several fairy tales and legends of the GESTA ROMANORUM or The Acts of the Romans.
The following text is based on Hermann Hesse’s preface to these fairy tales, originally published by Insel Verlag. Here is what Hesse has to say about these tales:
The Gesta Romanorum are a collection of stories, legends and anecdotes that were popular in the late Middle Ages. It is assumed that priests or clergy added the strong moral overtones to these tales, which were esteemed both as entertainment and edification by medieval readers. As the title suggests, all of these stories were originally taken from Roman history and saga, and over time a number of legends of the saints were added.
The author-or compiler - of this strange but influential book is unknown. It is rare to have such an important work of ancient literature, which has been so intensively studied, but about which surprisingly little is known. Here is not the place to offer conjecture but rather to describe in few words what we actually know about the Gesta Romanorum.
The oldest handwritten copy of the Latin text Gesta Romanorum was published in England in the year 1342. From that time until the beginning of the 16th century numerous copies, usually in Latin, were in circulation. There were also several English and German translations or reformulations of the text. Often these reformulations contained new material whereas the translations into other languages were strict reproductions of the original Latin. Thus it is assumed that the Gesta were written in England or Germany some time after 1300. Nothing is known about the author, and only a few scholarly, unconvincing theories have been offered. All that we know for certain is that this book of moral anecdotes enjoyed enormous popularity especially in Germany, where it was copied many times over, reworked and reprinted. With the arrival of the Reformation, it gradually disappeared but a portion of its popular material was transferred into early versions of German folktales. Starting in the mid-16th century if not earlier, the tales of the Gesta began to slip into obscurity.
[The version printed by Insel-Verlag/Germany* and selected by Hermann Hesse was translated by Johan Georg Theodor Graesse and originally published in 1842. Hesse compared this 19th century translation to a German version from the 15th century, and found it was not a simple matter to take an archaic text and create a new and vibrant translation. He adds that the version presented by Graesse seemed extremely readable, true to the original and not without appeal.
(* and the basis of the English translations provided here.)]
Fairy Tale of the Memento of Mortality
A long time ago a certain prince took enormous pleasure in the hunt. But it happened that when he rode out one day, he met a merchant, quite by accident, on the same road. When the merchant caught sight of the prince and saw how handsome and pleasant it was to gaze upon him, his fine and expensive garments, he said to himself:
“Dear God, you must love this man dearly; look, how beautiful he is, lively and wonderful to watch! And see how everyone in his company is dressed so decently.” As soon as he thought these thoughts, he spoke to one of the servants of the prince: “Tell me, dear man. Who is your master?” The servant replied: “He is master of many lands and indeed mighty because of his riches in gold, silver and servants.”
The merchant now spoke: “God must hold this man very dearly in his heart, because he is the most handsome and most wise man of all. I have never before laid eyes on such a man!” When the servant heard this, he secretly told every word the merchant had uttered to his master. When the prince now returned toward evening time to his home, he invited the merchant to overnight with him. The man did not think it proper to object, instead, he made his way with the prince toward his kingdom.
When he had entered the castle, the merchant viewed so many chambers beautifully adorned with gold and so many riches that he soon became spell-bound. When the hour of dinner approached, the prince called the merchant to table and offered the seat next to his wife. When the merchant saw this beautiful and dear lady, it unsettled him. He admitted to himself: “O my God, this prince has everything that his heart desires: a beautiful wife and daughter, sons and servants, and more than too many.” As he was mulling it over, food was brought to him and the queen. But look, the most delicious delicacies were served on a skull and placed before the lady. And the assembled were attended to in the great hall and many silver platters were carried by the servants.
When the merchant now saw the skull placed before him, he said to himself: “Woe is me. I fear I shall pay with my life here.”
The lady calmed him as well she could. When night came they led him to a well-appointed chamber, where he found a bed made, around which curtains had been hung. In one corner of the room was a large candalabra. When he lay down in bed, the servants closed the doors and the merchant was alone in the room and gazed upon the corner of the room, where a little light twinkled. There he saw two dead men, hanging by their arms. When he saw them, he was gripped by an unbearable fear, so that he could not sleep. In the morning he got up early and said: “Woe is me! I fear I shall also hang next to the others this day.” When the prince rose, he called the merchant to him and said: “My dear man, how do you like it here?” The merchant replied: “I like everything except being served at table with food presented on a skull platter. I was seized by such incredible revulsion and loathing, I could not eat. And when I lay down in bed, I saw two youth hanging in the corner of the chamber, and was seized by such overwhelming fear, that I could not sleep. That is why, for God’s sake, you must please let me travel on!”
The prince replied: “My dear man, you saw my too beautiful wife and a skull before her. The reason is as follows: The man whose head was placed before you, was once a noble duke, who seduced my wife. When I found them together, I took my sword and chopped off his head. Now, as sign of her shame, I place his head before her every day so that she keeps the sin she has committed in her memory. Thereupon, the son of the murdered man killed two youth related to me, who are now hanging in the chamber. I visit their corpses every day so that I remember to take revenge. When I reflect on the faithlessness of my wife and the death of those youth, I can have no more happiness. My dear man, go in peace and do not judge the life of a man by outward appearances before you know the complete truth of his circumstances.” The merchant took leave from him and went on his way to transact his business.
It is possible that this phrase was not pejorative in its original usage, but only a simple observation: the dancers wore torn clothing. Their garments might have become ripped as a result of their wild gesticulations or they may have purposely put on tattered clothing to give themselves a wild appearance, especially if the performers were taking on the role of wild man or wild woman (SeeDark Nights of the Fairy Tale: the Wild Man and Wild Woman). In European tales and saga the phrase “torn to bits” has survived, and is primarily used in conjunction with all manner of fairy tale dancers. In the versions of the tales we now have, the dancing has become something quite unnatural. (See The Farmers of Kolbeck Dance on Christmas Eve).
There are other references to ancient carnival traditions in fairy tales, but when taken out of their cultural context, they are difficult to recognize. The wild man and wild woman, who first appeared atthe end of November or beginning of December as wintry demons, are now ritually killed during the carnival celebration. This rite coincides with the first inklings of spring. But the first signs of springtime are usually observed on different days each year with broad regional variations. That is probably why the carnival tradition of killing the wild man could happen any time between February and April in the different areas of Europe. The first budding of a certain tree or the arrival of a migratory bird might have been the original trigger of the celebration. In the 18th century in parts of Italy, France and Austria, a death certificate was even issued. Descriptions of these demonic beings abound in Grimm’s Saga,, but other references are also of interest. According to Grimm, these creatures are primarily characterized by their keen sense of smell enabling the wild man to sense the approach of human flesh. These forest beings often cry “I smell the blood of man approaching!” or “The scent of human flesh is in the air!” We find this supernatural sense of smell in fairy tales as disparate as the German Hansel and Gretel (the witch, Grimm), the English Jack in the Beanstalk (the giant) and the French Petit Poucet (the ogre, Perrault).