Once upon a time there was a poor tailor who could barely feed his twelve children. When the thirteenth was born, the distraught man ran out to the road nearby determined to find someone to stand as godfather to the child. He knew of no other way that he could provide for his newborn son. The first person to pass was God, but the poor tailor rejected him. "God gives to the rich and takes from the poor. I'll wait for another to come." The second to pass was the Devil, but the poor tailor rejected him too. "He lies and cheats and leads good men astray. I'll wait for another." The third man to pass was Death, and the poor tailor considered him carefully. "Death treats all men alike, whether rich or poor. He's the one I'll ask."
Now Death had never been asked such a thing before, but he agreed at once. "Your child shall lack for nothing," he said, "for I am a powerful friend indeed." The years went by and he kept his word. The boy and his family lacked for nothing. When the boy finally came of age, his Godfather Death appeared before him. "It is time to establish you in the world. You are to become a great physician. Take this magical herb, the cure for any malady of this earth. Look for me when you're called to a patient's bed. If you see me at its head then give them a tincture of the herb and your patient will be well. But if you see me at the foot, you'll know it is their time to die. Your diagnosis will always be right, and you will be famous around the world."
And so it was. The young man became the most famous doctor of his time, and his fame spread far and wide until it reached the ears of the king. The king lay sick in his golden bed and he summoned the tailor's son to him. But when the young doctor arrived at last in the richly appointed bedchamber, he saw that the king was gravely ill and that Death stood at his feet. Now this king was much beloved and the young man wanted to cure him very much. He quickly instructed the court attendants to turn the bed the opposite way, and he then restored the king to health with a tincture of the magical herb. Death was not pleased. He shook his long, bony finger at his godson and said, "You must never cheat me again. If you do, it will be the worse for you."
The young man took this warning to heart and did not cross his godfather again — until the king's daughter fell ill and he was summoned back to the palace. This was the good king's only child. He was desperate to see her well. "Save her life," said the king, "I shall give you her hand in marriage." The doctor went to the lovely maiden's bedchamber, where Death was waiting. He stood at the foot of the princess's bed, ready to take her away. "Don't cross me again," his godfather warned, but the doctor was half in love already. He ordered the princess's bed to be turned and he gave her the herbal tincture.
The princess was healed immediately, but Death reached out a cold, white hand and clamped it on his godson's arm, saying. "You'll go with me instead." He took the young man into a cave, its wall niches covered with millions of candles. "Here," he said, "are candles burning for every life upon the earth. Each time a candle grows low and snuffs out, a life is ended. This one is yours." Death pointed to a candle that had burned down to a pool of wax. "Please," his godson begged, "for many years I was your faithful servant. Please, Godfather Death, won't you light a new candle for me?" Death gazed at him remorselessly. The candle sputtered and flickered out. The young doctor fell down dead.
* * * *
This story, titled Godfather Death, comes from the German folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. It can also be found in variant forms in a number of other countries as well — such as The Shepherd and the Three Diseases from Greece, The Just Man from Italy, The Soul–Taking Angel from Armenia, The Contract with Azrael from Egypt, Dr. Urssenbeck from Austria, and The Boy With the Keg of Ale from Norway. It's one of a number of folk and fairy tales in which Death is personified: sometimes as a frightening figure, sometimes as a compassionate one, and sometimes as a matter–of–fact man or woman with a job to do.
There are many tales in which Death is out–witted, such as Jump In My Sack from Slovenia — in which a young man pleases a powerful fairy who offers him two magic wishes. He asks for a sack which will suck in whatever he names, and a stick that will do all he asks. These wishes are granted, and the young man uses the sack to bring him meat and drink, until he comes to a great city and falls in with a group of gamblers. Death (or the Devil, in an Italian version of the tale) is among the gamblers in disguise, amusing himself at the gaming table by luring men to financial ruin and then collecting their souls when they are driven to suicide. The young man sees through Death's disguise. He orders the sack to suck Death up, then orders the stick to beat him soundly. At length Death begs for mercy, promising the young man whatever he wants. The young man asks for the restoration to life of all his gambling friends, and then orders Death to leave at once and to stay far away from him. But many years later, old and ill, he has second thoughts about this bargain. He now uses the sack to call Death back, and is grateful to be led away.
In a number of tales Death is outwitted and banished with dire consequences. The old, the ill, and the fatally wounded do not die, but linger in agony until finally the importance of Death's role can no longer be ignored. In a Spanish tale, an old woman traps Death in her pear tree and will not let him go until he promises to never come back. The woman's name is Tia Miseria (Aunt Misery), and as long as Death keeps his promise to her, we'll have misery in the world. In a similar tale from Portugal, Death outwits the old woman in the end — but finds her so shrewish, he promptly brings her back to her house and flees.
Some tales feature a Godmother Death, such as versions of the stories told in Slovenia and Moravia, and across the sea in America's Appalachian Mountain region. The depiction of death as male or female depended on the culture, the times, and the storyteller, but examples of both are widely found in folk tales the world over. In "Death and the Maiden," a story known in both folk tale and folk ballad form, the interaction of a male Death figure and the well–born young woman he's come to claim has an almost seductive quality. She tries to bargain for her life, offering up her gold and jewels, as he gently explains that she must go with him that very night. In some pictorial representations of the story, Death is portrayed as a knight clad in black; in others, more frighteningly, he is a skeleton in knightly clothes. (Franz Schubert drew on this tale for his lovely Quartet in D Minor: Death and the Maiden, composed in 1824.) In a Turkish fairy tale, The Prince Who Longed for Immortality, a male Death figure is pitted against the Queen of Immortality. They wager over who will get the hero by throwing him up in the air. In a story from northern Italy, Death is portrayed as a lovely young woman. She's an unwelcome guest in the palace when her true identity is revealed (as she takes the handsome young king away) — but a welcome guest in the cottage of a poor, old woman who's been waiting for her.
In early medieval representations, Death was usually masculine: powerful, pitiless, omnipresent. Clad in black, he was the Grim Reaper who cut men and women down in their prime, prince and poet and pauper alike. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, we find more examples of Death as a woman — such as Donna La Morte in Petrarch's famous poem, "The Triumph of Death," who appears suddenly all "black, and in black" to claim the life of a young noblewoman. The "Dance of Death" (or "Danse Macabre") first appeared in the middle of the 14th century as the Black Death ravaged its way across Europe. The Dance of Death originated in the form of a Christian spectacular play, performed in churchyards and cemeteries among charnel houses and graves. Death appeared here as masked, skeletal figures intent on leading away a series of victims (twenty–four in number) from all classes of society. The victims would protest, offering reasons why they and they alone should be spared, but in the end all are danced off to the grave while the fiddlers play. This was paired with sermons stressing that death could strike anyone at any time, exhorting the audience to prepare themselves and live free of sin.
In Italy in the following century, death spectacles were more elaborately staged. As Charles B. Herbermann and George Charles Williams describe them (in the Catholic Encyclopedia): "After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices." There are many pictorial representations of the Triumph of Death and the Dance of Death, such as the woodcuts created by Hans Holbein in 1538. Holbein's series begins with the Creation, Temptation, Expulsion, and Consequences of the Original Sin, resulting in Death's entry into the world. The fifth woodcut depicts the dead as skeletons in a cemetery, cavorting with musical instruments. The subsequent images show various figures being danced to their graves, from a high–born Pope to a lowly Beggar. The final images show the Last Judgment, and the triumph of God over Death.
Death also appears as a skeleton in the earliest extant Tarot cards, which first appeared in Italy and France in the 14th century. Use of the cards was limited then because each deck had to be painted by hand. With 16th century printing techniques, their use became more widespread. In the Marseille deck from this period, Death is a genderless, skeletal figure, holding a scythe and standing on a field of bones. The better known Rider–Waite Tarot deck dates back only to 1910, but draws on symbolic imagery from an earlier period. Here, Death appears as a skeletal knight, dressed in black armor, seated on a white horse. This imagery echoes Holbein's art, and a 16th century Durer engraving depicting a knight in armor on a horse, with his back to Death.
Art: Gevatter Tod / Godfather Death' by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Heinrich Lefler. Part of a fairy tale calender published 1905 by Berger & Wirth, Leipzig.