The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs is not a familiar Grimm’s story, but we run into this situation where the story is not familiar, but elements of it are. It’s a quest story and may seem similar to another very well-known story you’ve heard.
Once upon a time a baby was born with the caul on his head. In folklore, in many cultures, it is believed a child born with a caul on their head is destined for greatness or has a second sight. The caul being a part of the amniotic membrane that just happens to be stuck to a baby’s head after it is born. If you read a lot of folklore, you will come across this reference again.
Immediately, it was prophesied that this boy would marry the king’s daughter when he was fourteen. The king just happened to be in the area and he wasn’t a very nice king. He heard about the prophesy and paid the parents of the boy a great amount of gold if they would give the boy to him. The parents thought this was the right thing to do since a baby born with the caul on its head would surely have good fortune no matter where he was raised.
Instead of raising the baby, the king put the baby in a box and three it in the river. The king expected the baby to die. He didn’t. The box floated on down the river until it came to an area where a mill was. Another boy fished the box out hoping that it was treasure. He was disappointed when he found a baby inside, but the miller and his wife had no children so the boy took the baby to them. There they raised the boy until he was fourteen.
The king happened to see the boy one day and asked the miller if it was his son. The miller told him that the boy was not his son, but a foundling. He told the king how the boy had come from the river. The king knew it was the same baby he had tried to get rid of fourteen years ago, so he decided to try to get rid of the boy once again. He tasked the boy with taking a letter to the queen. Everyone agreed on it. The letter was not a pleasant letter though. It actually said that as soon as the boy got to the queen he should be killed.
The boy set out, but got a little lost on the way. He came to a cottage where there was an old woman. He asked to stay the night. She told him the cottage belonged to robbers and they would kill him. The boy said he was not afraid of robbers and stayed anyway. He was very tired. When the robbers came back they asked who the boy was and the woman told them that she felt sorry for him so she let him stay the night. He was tasked with delivering a letter to the queen. The robbers were a bit curious about this letter so they opened it up. When they saw that the letter said to kill the boy they felt sorry for him. So they tore up that letter and wrote a new one. This letter said that the boy should be married to the king’s daughter right away.
The next morning the boy got up and was on his way. When he got to the castle he gave the letter to the queen who did as it asked right away. The boy was married to the princess in his fourteenth year. Everyone was happy, until the king came home. When he came home he told the queen what he had originally written and was mad. He asked the boy about the letter who knew nothing about the letters being switched. The king told the boy who he couldn’t have everything his way and he told the boy that if he brought him three golden hairs from the devil the boy could stay married to his daughter. The boy said that he would get those three golden hairs.
He set off on a journey, which led him to a large town where the watchman asked him a question. First of all, he asked the boy what his trade was and the boy said that he knew everything. Then the watchman asked another question. He told the boy about a fountain which used to flow with wine, but not it didn’t. His question was why did the fountain not flow with wine anymore. The boy said he would give the man an answer to his question, but on his way back through town.
He came to another town where a gatekeeper asked him what he did and he gave the same answer, “I know everything.” He told the boy about a tree which used to bear golden apples, but now leaves wouldn’t even grow on it. Why was this? The boy said he would tell the gatekeeper why this was, but on his way back through town.
He came to a wide river where there was a ferryman who also asked him what he did. The boy gave the same answer. The ferryman then asked him why he must always go backwards and forth and could never be free? The boy said he would give him an answer, but on the way back over the ferry.
Soon the boy found the entrance to hell which was all sooty and black. He went right in and asked for the devil, but the devil wasn’t home. His grandmother was though(seriously, the devil has a grandmother?). The boy told the devil’s grandmother that he was there to get three golden hairs from the devil or he couldn’t keep his wife. The devil’s grandmother felt pity on him, so she said she would help. She turned him into an ant and hid him in the folds of her dress. The boy also asked the devil’s grandmother the three questions that had been asked to him on the way. The devil’s grandmother said to pay close attention to what the devil said when she was pulling each of the three golden hairs.
The devil came home and spelled something funny. He said he smelled man’s flesh, but his grandmother said that was nonsense and that his nose always smelt of man flesh and that he was messing up the house she just cleaned. The devil was placated and asked the grandmother to delouse him for a bit.
*Ok. here’s the thing…back in the day, it was pretty common to have lice, like all the time. People didn’t bath as often and lived in the buildings with their animals. They were quite prone to getting lice. Yes, people would help each other pick nits and lice out of each others hair. You may think this sounds gross, but this was just the time that people lived in.*
The devil soon fell asleep. The grandmother plucked one of the devil’s golden hairs. He woke up angry and asked what it was all about. The grandmother told him she had accidentally pulled his hair in a dream. She said it was the most terrible dream about a fountain that used to run with wine, but no longer did. She asked the devil why this was. He said it was because there was a large toad living in the well that should be killed. When the toad was dead the wine would flow again. Now go back to sleep.
After a while, the grandmother pulled another hair. The devil woke up again and was angry. The devil’s grandmother once again said she had a bad dream. She said that she dreamed about an apple tree which bore golden apples, but now wouldn’t even bear leaves. She asked why this was. The devil said there is a mouse gnawing at the roots. Once the mouse is killed the tree will bear golden apples and leaves again. Now go back to sleep.
Again, the grandmother pulls another hair from the devil. He was very angry when the last hair was pulled so he was very angry this time. Grandmother just says, “Hey a person can’t help having a bad dream can they?” The devil pretty much agrees and she tells him about her latest dream. She dreamt about a ferryman who was always going backwards and forth and was never free. How could he become free. The devil tells her that the ferryman must put his oar in someone else’s hand when they get on the ferry. Then he can go free. Now go back to sleep. I would like to think the devil was channeling the book Go the F*** to sleep and reading it in the voice of Samuel Jackson.
The devil goes back to sleep. The devil’s grandmother turns the boy back into a man and gives him the three golden hairs. He goes on his way. He comes to the ferryman first. He tells the ferryman he will answer his question, but first he must ferry him across. The ferryman takes him to the other side of the river and the boy tells him that all he has to do is put his oar in the hand of another person when they get on the ferry, then he can leave.
The boy goes to the town with the unfruitful apple tree. He tells them that they must kill the mouse that is gnawing at the roots of the three at it will bear fruit again. They were impressed and really grateful, so they gave him two donkeys loaded with gold. He then comes to the first town with the dry well. There he tells them that they must kill the toad at the bottom of the well, then the fountain will run with wine again. These people were impressed and grateful so they also gave him two donkeys loaded with gold.
The boy went back to the castle where the gave the three golden hairs from the devil to the king. The king pretty much has to say, “Alright, you can stay married to my daughter,” but he is also impressed with all the gold. He asks the boy where he got it and if anyone could get some. The boy tells him, “Sure, anyone can get some.” He says that he must go to a ferryman and go across the river and he could fill his sacks with as much gold as he wanted. The king is like, “That seems legit.” So he goes off.
He reaches the ferryman in question, which is the same ferryman from earlier and the ferryman gives the king his oar and says, “I quit have fun.” The king was stuck rowing the ferry for the rest of his days and maybe he’s still doing it.
This is definitely a longer Grimm’s tale than we’re used to around here. The summary was almost two thousand words.
Notice this is a quest story, the boy is sent on a quest, but he is also destined for greatness from the beginning. He grew up in a home other than the home he should have grown up in. He was set down the river in a box. He was promoted to a very high position almost by accident and had to prove himself throughout the story. Does this sound familiar? It should. That’s right MOSES!
Moses was also destined for greatness, sent down the river, raised by parents who were not his own, raised to greatness, and had to prove himself. Remember those ten plagues he brought down on Egypt to prove he had been sent by God? I can’t attest to Moses being born with the caul on his head, the scriptures don’t say anything about that. Here’s another little tidbit, depending on which scriptures you read, you will also find that Moses also had a little run in with the devil, just like the boy in this story. It didn’t involve any golden hairs though.
Hmm…gold, that’s another thing to notice in this story. Gold is mentioned three times. We also have the number three parading itself all over this tale.
I find it odd that the devil has a grandmother. I guess everyone needs looking after, but one would think the devil is devoid of any feeling. He clearly dotes on his grandmother in this tale. Here’s another thing, belief in the devil does waver from religion to religion, but generally, most people believe the devil has always been the devil and he’s always been a jerk. That isn’t always the case. According to some, the devil once lived in heaven and was only cast out onto the Earth when he wanted to take away choice from the sons and daughters of God. The devil was once just like you or me according to this look at the idea. He once probably felt care for others and had maybe even had some friends, but now, he’s just a jerk. It’s not often that we find a story in which the devil is depicted in a lighter manner than usual.
That is actually very unusual. It makes me wonder about the origins of this story. We have these stories where the devil is more playful like the story of the jack-o-lantern, but he’s always still a jerk. In this story, he isn’t so much of a jerk. He’s more human. It really makes me wonder, who thought this story up? What were their religious leanings? Where did they live? Stories travel and there is no reason this story did not travel to Germany from somewhere else.
Why wasn’t it the devil’s sister, or the devil’s brother, or the devil’s father, or the devil’s grandfather instead of the devil’s grandmother? Well, the simple answer to that is that grandmothers are awesome and always wise, just like the devil’s grandmother in this tale. She isn’t above his trickery though, which is kind of funny. For all the evil things the devil does the grandmother is the one lying about pulling his hair out in her sleep while dreaming a nightmare. She’s got some spunk.
Three, gold, and the anointed will always be the anointed are themes in this tale. We have the number three which is a number of completeness and a number of proving. The boy answers three questions, and receives three golden hairs. He is also saved three times. He is saved when the king first means to drown him. He is saved when the robbers switch his letter out. He is also saved when the devil’s grandmother takes pity on him and helps him out with getting the devil’s hairs. Three this, three that, over and over, and over again.
Gold is mentioned three times in this tale. We have mention of gold being paid to the birth parents of the boy. We have mention of the golden apple tree and we have mention of the boy bringing back four donkeys of gold. I don’t know what the number four symbolizes in all of this, I’ll have to research it. Remember what I told you about gold always being accepted as valuable? That’s the same thing here. Gold will always be set as this symbol of wealth in these stories. No matter what time you exist in, gold is always worth something. We get a gold medal if we are the top winner in the Olympics, not a silver medal or a bronze metal, although, those are nice as well. Gold is the king. Notice none of these tales are ever about a boy who goes out and comes back with a bunch of silver. It just wouldn’t have the same ring to it, the same golden ring that is.
The anointed, let’s talk about that. This boy was anointed, chosen, elected, prophesied, touched, etc., etc., etc., from the time of his birth to do great things and nothing was going to change that. NOTHING. The king tried. How many times did the king try to thwart this prophesy? Twice. Twice the king tried to foil the plans of destiny or God or whomever. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. There is no, oh, well, only on second Tuesdays or only without another coupon disclaimers going on, they said this boy was going to marry the king’s daughter when he was fourteen and it happened despite all the meddling of the king.
We usually have this concept in biblical stories. There are some other tales in which we run into this theme, but generally, this theme has its place in the Bible. In the real world, we generally believe, that you can prophesy all you want about how you’re going to play for the NBA, but A) we’ll believe it when we see it and B) there are multitudes of injuries and addictions you can develop to keep you from the NBA. It’s not a sure thing. When we talk about this theme in relation to the Bible, it’s a little more concrete. If it’s prophesied that it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
Remember the story of Jonah from the Bible. Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah. God told him to go to Ninevah. God said, “Get your butt over there.” Jonah, was like, “No, I don’t feel like it,” and he tried to go somewhere else instead. Well, what happened. Well, there was a great storm and the guys on the boat threw Jonah overboard and he was swallowed by a great fish and was in its belly for three days. Jonah ended up in Ninevah anyway. He got swallowed by a big fish along the way, but it still happened.
It’s this concept that destiny is unmovable. It’s your fate you can’t change it. Some people believe in fate and some people don’t. If someone has you picked out to be the next Donald Trump is it fate if it happens or is it your hard work? If it doesn’t happen does that mean fate was wrong or that you made the wrong choices. If you don’t want to be the next Donald Trump do you have to do it anyway because fate said you had to?
There is a story from The Book of Mormon that reminds me of this story. In the BoM, there is a man called Alma the younger. He’s a brat, but he was also a prophet at one point. When he is young he is mean to people. He probably goes to strip clubs. He runs around in a gang of boys doing terrible things. I don’t know all the terrible things he did, I wasn’t there. Anyway, the idea goes that God had him picked out to be a prophet from the start, or rather that God decided all men who were prophets would be prophets before they were even born, that sort of thing. Here he was being this terrible brat, but God straightened that out pretty fast. Alma saw an angel and was stuck in some in-between for three days and when he came to, he knew he had done some terrible things and should now walk the straight and narrow. He still becomes a prophet even though he was “wicked” for a while.
On the one hand, this idea of your fate being set is kind of nice. It means no matter what you do, as long as you are destined to do a thing, it’s going to happen. So you’re destined to discover a cure for cancer. Well, with a sealed fate you can goof off in school, drop out, get a GED, sell oranges by the freeway, then accidentally discover the cure for cancer while you’re trying to blow up your next door neighbor because he keeps stealing your newspaper. You can be a screw-up otherwise, but still do something great.
On the other hand, it seems cruel to the people who actually try to better themselves. What about those thousands of doctors who actually do research cancer to try to find a cure? Aren’t they just as worthy to find a cure as you are, if not more because they didn’t screw up their educations?
Here’s a word “predestination.”
1.The act of predestining or the condition of being predestined.
2. Theologya. The doctrine that God has foreordained all things, especially that God has elected certain souls to eternal salvation.b. The divine decree foreordaining all souls to either salvation or damnation.c. The act of God foreordaining all things gone before and to come.3. Destiny; fate.
I am sure there are many more things I could pick out of this tale. It’s a long story and perhaps there are other themes to look at and other symbols to explore. Maybe someday I’ll pick everything out that I can find, but today is not that day.