The tales we tell
From the archives: At the Death of the Year

Death in Folk & Fairy Tales

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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."

Godfather Death by John B. GruelleNow 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."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

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."

Death in the Rider Waite tarot deckThere 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 (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) 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 woodcuts, and Albrecht Dürer's 16th century engraving "Knight, Death, and the Devil."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

My friend and colleague Midori Snyder is a writer who has worked with the folklore of death in several ways ( in her elegiac faery novel Hannah's Garden, her children's story "Jack Straw" [read it online here], and in a novel-in-progress based on an Italian fairy tale),  so I asked her for her thoughts on the subject:

"There are many characters in folklore associated with death," Midori responded, "various death-announcers and death-dealers, but I would suggest that they are not actually Death figures, as in a Mr. or Ms. Death personified. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War, for example, revels not only in the glory of war but also its violence and carnage: the taste of fear, the scent blood, the dying moments of warriors on the battlefield. Flying above the battle in the form of a black crow, she is a figure of Fate, like the Valyries of Norse myth, foretelling who will live and who will die...but she is not Death herself. The various incubi and succubi of European folk legend are death-dealers, in their actions are fatal to the luckless mortals who get tangled up with them...but they aren't Death, either. Their interest is in specific individuals (generally those who catch their sexual interest), whereas Death is an equal opportunity killer. Death takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong, the weak. Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting, unpredictable pattern. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen -- but never when and never how. Tales such as Godfather Death, or the medieval Dance of Death, specifically addressed this idea and this terror -- as opposed to folklore's other death-dealing creatures, who select very specific victims. Edgar Allan Poe's frightening story 'Masque of the Red Death' plays with the idea that one imagines one can foretell and identify Death, and therefore keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the sheer ease with which Death infiltrates the masque with the rest of the revelers."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez 10

"I've also been thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours," Midori continues. "The Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, is not a Mr. Death figure, but, rather, he is the King of the Dead, content to rule over the souls who have come to him instead of going out and nabbing them himself. Likewise in the Christian tradition, where those who die are 'born to eternal life' in heaven or hell, Christ isn't a Mr. Death, and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice), although both have something to say about dead souls in the afterlife.

"When we look at myth, specifically at that cycle of tales in which death is brought into the world (often by a bumbling Trickster figure), death is rarely personified. It moves like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous. Death happens. But in folk and fairy tales, death acquires a face, a figure, a point of consolidation -- which allows the protagonist of the tale, when confronted with his or her mortality, to recognize the moment at hand. The personified images of Mr. or Ms. Death are generally of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonymity and flexibility of personified Death insures the equality with which death meets us all...high and low.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. In medieval and Renaissance pictorial representations, Death often wears a tattered, mirror version of the clothes his victim wears. It is, after all, for each of us, our Death that we meet, no one else's. In the stories where he appears, Mr. Death is a reflection -- a concrete, externalized image of the protagonist's death. And therefore his/her appearance has something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived. From the Grim Reaper of medieval legend to the elegant young stranger in Peter Beagle's story 'Come Lady Death' or the 'woman in white' in Bob Fose's All That Jazz, from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's haunting film Dead Man, Death appears in a variety of guises but also functions differently as a narrative sign. Coyote's death in Trickster myths, for example, is experienced (and read) very differently than the death proffered by the skeletal knight who comes to take the Maiden away. The first is read as temporary, because Coyote always come back to life -- while the other is frighteningly permanent. The skeleton reflects what the Maiden will become. Indeed, what we'll all become."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death is a frequent theme in fairy tales -- as well as the stark realities of death's aftermath, for many stories begin with the death of one or both of the hero's parents. Fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out that death in childbirth was far more common in centuries prior to our own and the prevalence of step-children and orphans in fairy tales reflected a social reality. Many of these tales (in their pre-Victorian forms) were exceedingly violent, including those gathered by the Brothers Grimm in editions published for German children. Though the Grimms are known to have edited their fairy tales with a rather heavy hand, stripping them of sensuality and moral ambiguity, they had no such qualms about leaving much of the worst violence intact. (Indeed, as scholar Maria Tatar has noted, in some stories they beefed it up.) Murder, cannibalism, and infanticide are staples of the fairy tale genre. From Bluebeard with his chamber of horrors to the goodwife in The Juniper Tree who decapitates her inconvenient step-son, death is a very real threat in the tales -- yet it does not always have the last word. In Fitcher's Bird (a Bluebeard variant), the heroine not only outwits the wizard who aims to marry then murder her, but she's able to bring the hacked-up bodies of her predecessors back to life. The step-son in The Juniper Tree returns to earth in the form of a bird. Cinderella's dead mother returns as a fish (in the oldest, Chinese version of the story), a cow (in a Scottish variant), or a tree (in the version found in Grimms), watching over her daughter and whispering wise words of advice.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Another good example is the story of Snow White. Our heroine is not merely sleeping but dead, in the early versions of her tale: displayed in a glass coffin, her form incorruptible, like a saint's. The necrophilic overtones of the story are most evident in a 16th century Italian version called The Crystal Casket. In this tale, the heroine is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her step-daughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The step-mother then hires a witch, who sells poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead -- and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place the girl's body in a fabulous casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the royal city.

Photograph by Daniel VazquezThe casket is soon found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes the body home with him. "But my son, she's dead!" protests his mother. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. The queen ignores the macabre creature -- until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed. The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the queen, "the girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The heroine is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.

Author and fairy tale scholar Veronica Schanoes notes, "Many fairy tales and myths concern the fantasy that if you love someone enough, you can bring them back from the dead. In fairy tales, that effort is usually successful and the wish is fulfilled: Sleeping Beauty wakes up; Snow White revives; the older sisters in Fitcher's Bird are resuscitated; the heroine recovers her prince in East of the Sun, West of the Moon; etc. But in myth, the stories tend to be more poignantly about the limits of human love and its inability to defeat death: Gilgamesh can't bring back Enki; Achilles can't bring back Patroclus; Theseus cannot rescue Pirithous; Orpheus fails; and even though she is a goddess, Demeter's love for Persephone can only bring her back part-way."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen often touch on the subject of death, but the ones that address the subject directly are among his most pious and sentimental, better suited to Victorian tastes than they are to ours today. One of the more interesting of them is The Story of a Mother, in which Death knocks on a woman's door and takes her beloved son away. The distraught woman determines to follow, and makes her long, weary way to Death's realm. There, she finds a greenhouse filled to the bursting with flowers and trees of all kinds -- each one representing a single life somewhere on earth. When Death arrives, she tricks him into giving back the life of her son -- but Death shows her the future and the terrible life her child will lead. She knows then that his death is god's will, and a mercy, and she is at peace.

Andersen's very best tale about death has deservedly become a classic. The Nightingale is the story of a Chinese Emperor and a bird with an exquisite song. The Emperor dotes on the bird for awhile, then replaces the humble, faithful creature with a golden mechanical replicate...until the night that Death comes for him, squatting heavily on his chest:

Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner. Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now that Death sat on his heart.

"Don't you remember?" they whispered one after the other. "Don't you remember—?" And they told him of things that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.

"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor. "Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they say!"

But nothing will drown out the whispers. The Emperor's mechanical bird sits silent, for there is no one to wind it up. Then the real nightingale arrives, having heard wind of the emperor's plight. He sings so beautifully that the phantoms fade and even Death stops to listen. The nightingale bargains for the emperor's life, and Death departs.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death underlines the magical stories that make up The Arabian Nights, for it is the reason Scheherazade spins her tales: to save herself and her sister. "There's something almost Trickster-ish about Scheherazade," Midori points out. "She uses storytelling to keep death at bay -- but she does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where its conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires yet another night to finish -- and then promptly starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion (the rehearsal of 'death') does come -- but in the middle of the night, which enables her to resurrect herself in another tale before the sun rises. So it's as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the storyteller. It's like trickster's death in the Coyote stories, a death that is never final. He's always returning, repeating a movement between death and creation."

It fairy tales, too, death is not always final; it's sometimes an agent of change and transformation. Sleeping Beauty in her death-like sleep, Snow White in her glass coffin: this is a mere rehearsal for death, and out of it new life is created (literally, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, who gives birth to twins as she lies asleep and wakes as they try to suckle). In Trickster myths, the connection between death and life, destruction and creation, is usually made clear; but in fairy tales too, death is not always an ending, or at least not just an ending. It can have within it the seeds of new life, of change, of transformation — which is what these tales, at their most basic level, are so often all about.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death in folklore, when not associated with the more violent sorts of death-dealers, is generally rather ambiguous," Midori concludes, "which is of course the nature of death itself. At some point we must accept and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all -- yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality. Death figures in folk and fairy tales allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it."

This is fertile ground for fantasy writers, some of whom have already made good use of it: Ursula K. Le Guin in The Farthest Shore, Jane Yolen in Cards of Grief, Rachel Pollack in Godmother Night, Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comics, etc.. But there's still much territory to explore as the fantasy genre ages and matures... and as we fantasy writers and artists age and mature along with it.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

For an excellent discussion of death in fantasy literature, I highly recommend "Imagined Afterlives," a new essay by Katherine Langerish.

The marvelously macabre photographs today are by the American photographer Daniel Vazquez, who lives and works in the Bay Area of California. Please visit his "American Ghoul" website and Instagram page to see more of his stunning work (and to purchase his prints).

Photograph by Daniel VazquezPictures: The photographs above are by Daniel Vazquez; all rights reserved by the artist. The illustrations are: "Godfather Death" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938) and the Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Words: Many thanks to Midori Snyder for her contribitions to this essay. (Go here to read some of her own essays on myth and folklore, highly recommended.) All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.

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