The theme of humans making deals with the
devil or with some other supernatural being is common throughout the Judeo-Christian world. Usually, the human ends up getting the better of the devil, but there are exceptions, such as in the story of Jean Dubroise.
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The Devil’s Church
In the Polish tale “The Devil’s Church,” a hermit in league with the devil sold his soul. When the hermit realized death was near, he offered the devil his soul if the devil would fulﬁll a few wishes. The devil agreed.
The hermit asked the devil to fell an oak forest and build a church and a cofﬁn for him. All this was to be completed before the clock struck midnight. But the devil could not ﬁnish in time. Just as he was beginning the church tower, the clock struck twelve, and he had to leave.
The hermit recovered his health and confessed his sins. As for the church, it did not stand long. In that same year, it was struck by lightning and burned completely to the ground. It is said that every midnight, the devil’s angry howls still can be heard.
The Master Smith
In the Norwegian folktale “The Master Smith,” a blacksmith made a bargain with the devil that the ﬁend could have his soul after seven years. Until that time, the smith was to be the master of all masters in his trade. The devil agreed, and the smith placed a sign over the door of his forge that read, “Here is the master over all masters.”
God and Saint Peter, however, stopped by and showed the smith the error of his boast. He asked for and was granted the following three wishes: Anyone the smith asked to climb up into his pear tree would be stuck there until the smith let him come down; anyone who sat in the smith’s chair would stay there until the smith let him get up; and anyone the smith asked to creep into his steel purse would stay there until the smith let him out again.
When the seven years were up, the devil came to fetch the smith. The smith told him to climb up into the pear tree for a nice, ripe pear to eat. The devil did this and was unable to come down. The smith kept him up there for four years.
The smith then released the devil from the tree. He invited the devil to rest a while in his chair. Once the devil was seated, he could not get up. Again, the smith kept him in place for four years.
Now the devil was really ready to take the smith. But the smith asked if it was true that the devil could become as small as he pleased. The devil proved it by climbing into the smith’s steel purse. The smith promptly put the steel purse in his forge’s ﬁre. Then he began to beat the steel purse as he would any hot metal. The devil yelled and bellowed and ﬁnally agreed that if the smith released him, the devil would never come near him again. The smith agreed, and let the devil go.
Now that he had barred himself from hell, the smith decided to see if heaven would have him. He reached the heavenly gates just as Saint Peter was beginning to close them. The smith hurled his hammer at the opening… and no one knows if he got in.
In the German tale “Bearskin” from the Brothers Grimm, a soldier without the means to earn a living met the devil and made a deal: The devil would give the soldier a jacket with pockets that were always full of gold. In return, the soldier had to wear the skin of a bear and not wash, groom himself, or pray for seven years. The soldier agreed.
After a number of years, the now ﬁlthy and bedraggled soldier, called Bearskin, helped an old man out of his ﬁnancial difﬁculties. In exchange, the old man offered him the hand of one of his three daughters. The elder two refused to marry such a horrible ﬁgure, but the youngest consented. Bearskin offered her a token—half of a ring. (This is a traditional theme in folklore; the two halves are to be rejoined when the lovers meet.) Bearskin then left to complete the remainder of the devil’s sentence.
When the seven years were over, the devil cleaned up Bearskin and dressed him as a rich noble. Bearskin returned to the house of his bride, and the eldest daughters immediately fell in love with him. When they discovered that he was the same man they had rejected years before, they were so overcome by jealousy that they killed themselves.
When the devil arrived, he released Bearskin from their deal because he had received two souls, the suicides, in exchange for one.
How Jack Beat the Devil
In the African American folktale “How Jack Beat the Devil,” a character named Jack bet his soul during a gambling match with the devil. Jack lost the wager but was given a chance to save his soul. The devil would release Jack if he was able ﬁnd the devil’s house, which lay beyond the sea, before the Sun set on the next day.
Jack met an old man who advised him about what to do. The next morning, Jack caught a huge eagle and climbed aboard the bird for a ride. Even though Jack fed the bird bits of meat to keep it going on its ﬂight, the eagle ate Jack’s arm and leg. Jack pressed on and reached the devil’s house. When the eagle landed, Jack’s missing arm and leg were replaced.
Jack’s next trial was to clear a ﬁeld in one day. The devil’s daughter, who had fallen for Jack, put her father to sleep so he wouldn’t interfere. The next morning, when Jack awoke, the job was already done.
Jack’s next task was to recover a ring from the bottom of a well. Once again, the devil’s daughter put both her father and Jack to sleep. When Jack awoke in the morning, the job was already done. Finally, Jack was to pluck two geese at the top of a tall tree. Again, the job was done as Jack slept.
Jack married the devil’s daughter. That night, they had to ﬂee because the devil meant to kill Jack. The devil ﬁnally caught up with them, and the devil’s daughter changed Jack into a log. The devil found the log, but Jack prayed aloud and drove the devil away.
The Devil and the Lazy Man
The French-Canadian tale “The Devil and the Lazy Man” features a lazy man named Jean Dubroise, who had the ﬁnest crops and animals even though he never did any work. One night, a neighbor discovered the truth. Dubroise had made a deal with the devil to send loups-garous (werewolves) to do Dubroise’s farmwork under cover of night.
As soon as it was safe, the neighbor rushed to the local priest. While Dubroise was in town the following day, the priest had Dubroise’s farm sprinkled thoroughly with holy water. That night, when the devil and the loupsgarous appeared, the holy water drove them off. The furious devil was sure that Dubroise was trying to break their pact and dragged him away.
The priest broke the spell on the loupsgarous, which turned them back to mortal men. But Dubroise was gone for good.
Deals with the devil also have been portrayed in modern ﬁction. Washington Irving’s story “The Devil and Tom Walker” was published in 1824. The Devil and Daniel Webster, by Stephen Vincent Benét, was published in 1937. Benét’s work was the basis for a play by Archibald MacLeish, an opera, and two ﬁlms.
In 1979, the Charlie Daniels Band recorded “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a song about a young musician, Johnny, who accepts the devil’s challenge and beats him in a ﬁddling contest. The continued popularity of the song isevidence that this theme will continue to inspire songs and stories for years tocome.