Sunday, 6 April 2008

Bohemian Beelzebubbian Books

I HAVE BEEN READING some devilish stories in a lovely little book recently. Folktales from Bohemia by Adolf Wenig, illustrated by Josef Wenig, and published as part of a fantastic folktales series by Hippocrene books (It was first published in 1923 as Beyond the Giant Mountains). The illustrations are lovely red and black wood/lino cuts and all the characters wear the most delightfully clumpy clogs. There has always been something about the devil who appears in old tales like these that I like. He is rather a silly blundering fellow with a sooty complexion and the odd telltale horn and hoof. In these tales he is repeatedly outwitted by clever peasants...

How an Old Woman Cheated the Devil
In a certain village there was an old woman who lived all by herself in her old weather beaten hut. She was very poor and her poverty troubled her greatly, but she could not go begging for people would say: "She has a home and yet she begs." One day she said to herself: "What reward have I for working hard all my days and leading an honest life? In my old age I am to die of hunger."
Hardly had she said it when someone tapped on the window. The old woman looked out and saw a black man grinning at her.
"Open the door," he said; "I am worn out from my journey and I would like to rest."
But the old woman angrily answered: "Indeed! Lodge tramps and vagabonds! Just go on your way, there is no room for you here!" and she reached out to shut the window. The black man quickly thrust in his hand, all hairy and with claws in place of nails, so that she could not close it.
She was angry and scolded. The black man chuckled and said: " Be still, old woman, I am not so bad. Look at this!" and on his black palm he held out a shining ducat.
Her eyes opened wide at the sight of it. She snatched the money and hurried to let the stranger in. She did not care now what her guest looked like, but led him into the room and asked him if he had any more of those shining yellow pieces. The stranger again spread out his palm and lo! there was another yellow ducat. The old woman eagerly took it and put it into her pocket. "Well, well," she thought, "after all this fellow is not as bad as he appears."
After giving her guest some smoked meat to eat (for that was the kind he liked best) she sat him down and told him that she was a great lover of those yellow birds which he had placed in her palm. He chucked to himself.
"I will bring you as many as you like, if you will promise me your soul. I am the Devil."
The old woman was not frightened a bit and she answered: "I will not promise, but I will sell. In the loft by the window hangs a bag. Fill that with ducats and when it is filled, you may have my soul."
At this the devil jumped up and flew off to hell for the money. Meanwhile the old woman hurried up to the loft and cut a hole in the bottom of the bag. When the devil arrived with the money and poured it into the bag, it fell through the hole into the loft. The devil had to fly back for more money again and again until there was so much money in the loft that the bag stayed filled.
Tired and angry at the way the old woman had served him, he demanded his reward. "You have the money, now give me your soul!"
But to that she answered: "It isn't yours yet. You must do one more thing for me and then you may have my soul."
To avoid a quarrel, the devil agreed and asked what he was to do. The old woman handed him a sieve and ordered: "Carry water from the pond into the barrel which stands in the garden. The vegetables need watering and there is no water."
The devil took the sieve and ran to the pond, but dip as he would and run as he would, he could never get the water as far as the barrel. When the sweat dripped from every pore and he had become so tired he could hardly drag his feet, he flung the sieve to the ground and angrily exclaimed: "Truly I am an old devil and a mean one, but you, old woman, are still worse."
He slapped her across the face so that stars flashed before her eyes, and then vanished.
Thus the old woman got rid of the devil and had a whole loft full of money. After that, everything went well with her, but the marks left by the devil's claws remained on her face all the rest of her life.

* * * * * * * * * *
Still devil-hunting in Bohemia ... I now invite you to leaf through the pages of the Codex Gigas ~ ("gigantic book") the largest medieval manuscript in the world. It was created in the early 13th century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia, and is now preserved at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm (taken in 1648 by the Swedish army as plunder at the end of the 30 years' war), where two librarians are needed to lift it. It is also known as the Devil's Bible due to a large illustration of the devil on the inside.
The codex includes the entire Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, Isidore of Seville's encyclopedia Etymologiae, Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, Cosmas of Prague's Chronicle of Bohemia, various tractates (from history, etymology and physiology), a calendar with necrologium, a list of brothers in Podlažice monastery, magic formulae and other local records. The entire document is written in Latin.
On page 290 which is otherwise empty, there appears a unique picture of the devil, about 50cm tall. Several pages before this are written on a blackening vellum and have a very gloomy character, somewhat different from the rest of the codex.
According to legend, the scribe was a monk who breached his monastic code and was sentenced to be walled up alive. In order to forbear this harsh penalty he promised to create in one single night a book to glorify the monastery forever, including all human knowledge. Near midnight he became sure that he could not complete this task alone, so he sold his soul to the devil for help. The devil completed the manuscript and the monk added the devil's picture out of gratitude for his aid.


Bohemia in more recent years has continued to tell devil's tales, often with beautifully carved marionettes. If you have not yet sampled the dark and unnerving delights of Jan Svankmajer's animated films (such as Little Otik, Alice or Faust - which includes a life size devil marionette - left), then I heartily suggest you do .. if you dare.

7 comments:

Ciara said...

Wow! I love all that dark-eastern-folktale-lore. A dash of delicious creepiness is a great addition to ones personal recipe.
Thanks!

willow said...

That Codex is amazing. Always enjoy reading your little articles, Rima!

Isabel said...

Simply delicious!
The book addict I am is now officially fascinated with the "Codex Gigas"(which I am now compelled to research). As for the story you took from "Folktales from Bohemia", it reminded me of the stories my aunt used to tell as a little girl after lunch, when we sat in the dark during "siesta" time-a mixture of folktales and Brother Grimm's stories with certain personal "portuguese" twist. I loved how her voice made the stories even more mysterious, almost incantatory.

reimão said...

Greatest blog. thanks for sharing :)

Sherry said...

I loved the story, thank you!

Gwen Buchanan said...

Hi,
fascinating, charming, inspiring, delightful, imaginative... WOW... I totally love your blog... your stories... your paintings... everything...
we are craftspeople from New Brunswick Canada and if we never made most everything around us we would still be sitting in a field...It feels so good to create.

I recognize the Desiderata... that is my Muse... my hearts desire

good to meet you...
ps..Long time ago my ancestors came from Ireland after they came from Scotland...

Anonymous said...

I hearby claim this section mine....