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Annotations for Godfather Death

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Godfather Death:
Death in Fairy Tales
by Terri Windling

Aging and Death in Folklore by D. L. Ashliman

Godmother Death, a story
by Jane Yolen


The annotations for the Godfather Death fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Godfather Death Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Godfather Death to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

Special thanks to Christine Ethier, an adjunct teacher of English writing at both Community College of Philadelphia and Camden County College, for providing the annotations to this tale.

I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.

The Grimms' Notes For the Tale

From Hesse; but here oral tradition completes the story by the fact of Death showing the physician the cavern with the life-candles, and warning him. The stratagem by means of which Death punishes his Godson is taken from the rendering of the story in Schilling's Neue Abendgenossen, 3. 145, 286, who has also derived it from modern folklore. The age of the story is proved by one of Hans Sachs's Meister Songs in the year 1553, which is to be found in a MS. collection of Meister songs in Berlin (German MSS. No. 22 and following parts. The conclusion is different. Compare a Meister song by Henry Wolf in the year 1644, in another collection (German MSS. No.24 fol. p. 496), in which first the Devil and then Death is rejected by the peasant. Jacob Ayrer, too, has made a Shrove-Tuesday Play of it (the 6th in the theatrical works), called The Peasant and his Godfather, Death. First Jesus offers himself as Godfather, but is not accepted by the peasant because he makes one man rich and another poor. Thereupon the Devil comes up whom the peasant likewise rejects (as St. Christopher did when he was in search of a master), because he runs away at the name of the Lord and the holy cross. At length the Devil sends Death to him who treats every one alike, and he stands Godfather to the child, and promises to make him a physician, so that superabundant wealth will come to him:

"bei allen Kranken findst du mich [1],
und mich sieht man nicht bei ihn sein,
dann du solist mich sehen allein.
wenn ich steh' bei des Kranken Füssen
so wird derselbe sterben müssen,
alsdann so nim dich sein nicht an,
sichstu mich aber beim Kopfen stahn," &c.

Two apple-pippins concealed in bread are all that he is to give by way of medicine. The peasant has great success with them, but at last Death fetches him himself. This fable, though with peculiar variations (of which the best consists in the fact that it is not the father but the newly-born child itself which receives the gift of healing), is told by Prätorins in the Glückstopf (1669, pp. 147-149). See Pröhle's Kindermärchen, No. 13. According to a story from the Odenwald, in Wolt's Hausmärchen, p. 365, the physician outwits Death.

The candles with which life is bound up recall Nornagest and the still current expressions, "to extinguish the flame of life," or the taper of life. Already in a Greek myth was life connected with a burning faggot. See Grüber's Mythological Dictionary, 3. 153. The story specially points to deep-seated ideas; compare Wackernagel in Haupt's Zeitschrift, 6. 280, and following pages. Death and the Devil are evil deities, and both are one, in the same way that hell, the nether world and the kingdom of the dead, run into each other in the story of the Smith [2].

But the Evil One, like the good God, is called Father, and "Tatta." The Godfather is not only called Father, but also "Pathe," "Goth," and "Dod," or "Tod." The baptized child is likewise called "Pathe" and "Gothel," hence the confusion between the two in the story: compare Altdeutsche Wälder, 1. 104, notes. Grammatically, indeed, the words tôt (mors) and tote (susceptor baptizati) are carefully distinguished.

1: By every sick man I'll be found,
But none my presence shall espy,
And none save thou know I am by.
When by the patient's feet am 1,
Be sure of this that he must die.
All care is vain, his life is sped,
But if thou see'st me by his head, &c.

2: Gambling Hansel, No. 82.-TR.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.

SurLaLune's Annotations

1.  Godfather Death:  AT 332 (Ashliman). Source is Mie Wild (Paradiz 121).
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2.  Therefore the thirteenth:  There is a belief that if there are 13 people eating dinner together then one (or the last one to sit down at the table) will die before the year is out (Opie and Tatem 397). The belief comes from two different stories. The older story comes from Norse myth. The god Loki was the thirteenth member of a banquet in Valhalla, and the god Balder died (Evans 1075). The second story that reinforced the belief is the story of the Last Supper with Christ and his twelve Apostles (Opie and Tatem 397).
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3.  To be godfather:  The tradition of godparents is borrowed from non-Christian religions (Fahlbusch 442) and dates, at least, to the second century where godparents vouched for adults during baptism (Fahlbusch 442). When infant baptism became common "godparents assumed the task of asking for baptism on the children's behalf, in their stead promising renunciation of sin and making confessions of faith" (Fahlbusch 442). Starting in the eighth century, godparents were examined to make sure they were fit to serve the office (Fahlbusch 442). Besides the religious aspect, and after the Reformation in particular, godparents helped the godchildren by contributing money, goods, and education for the children and, if needed, adopting them (Fahlbusch 443). Evans also points out that godfather are "sometimes chosen for the sake of the present they are expected to make to the child at Christening or in their will" (471).

Because of the father's rejection of two potential godparents, he seems to be performing some type of godfather examination. Return to place in story.

4.  Make it happy on earth:  The offer is a spiritual/emotional one. There is no promise of riches or power.
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5.  He did not know how wisely God apportions riches and poverty: Tatar points out that this phrase was added by the Brothers (194). The change makes the tale less subversive (Tatar 194).
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6.  Gold in plenty and all the joys of the world as well:  The Devil offers material gain but the focus is on money and physical (non-spiritual) enjoyment. Basically, the Devil is offering a version of his traditional pact.
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7.  Then came Death:  Tatar writes, "As the great leveler, Death represented a democratic principle in a world that was ruled by strict hierarchies that divided the rich from the poor and that made life seem unjust" (194).

The idea of Death as the great leveler started during the Middle Ages (Biedermann 91), where Death was seen as a skeleton in picture depicting The Dance of Death (Biedermann 91). The death figure in this story seems to be a cross between the skeleton like death and the death from early medieval representations. There Death is seen as "masculine: powerful, pitiless, omnipresent" (Windling). The Grimms' Death has feeble legs, but he strides.
According to John Clute and John Grant, editors of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Death in literature is a Liminal Being who "exists at the threshold of two states; this gives LBs both wisdom and the ability to instruct while also rendering them dangerous and uncanny" (581).
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8.  Thou takest the rich as well as the poor, without distinction:  Tatar in her annotation of the tale points out:

The powerful contrast between God's way of treating people and Death's manner of making no distinctions based on social class reflected growing skepticism about the comforts of religion. Social justice would have to come through means other than piousness and prayer. (196)

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9.  I'm going to make your child rich and famous: Death offers fame and riches but not the happiness offered by the Lord.
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10.  Into a forest, and showed him a herb which grew there:  The forest can be a place of danger and change (Biedermann 158).

In the 1812 version, Death gives his godson a flask (Ashliman). While the herb is not identified, there were at least two herbs that were credited with magical healing powers. The first is vervain, also called Herbra Sacra {Divine Weed} by the Romans (Evans 526). It was believed that vervain could cure any manner of ills including the plague, bites of rabid animals, even magical attacks (Evans 526). The Romans had a festival, Verlenalia, to honor it, heralds wore it, and Druids prized it (Evans 526).

There is also dittany. It was thought that if a deer wounded by hunters ate dittany the arrow would fall out and the wound would heal (Biedermann 92-93).
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11.  If I stand by the head of the sick man:   There was a belief that standing by the head of a dying person would stop the soul from leaving (Opie and Tatem 117).

As for the foot, there is the saying "One foot in the grave" which means dying (Evans 428).
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12.  He gave the King some of the herb:  While his godfather practices equality, the hero does not. He chooses to cheat Death for a king's life, not a maid's; perhaps out of desire for a greater reward.
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13.  Infatuated by the great beauty:  She's not just a king's daughter; she also has the beauty.

Tatar points out:

The physician's failure to recognize that he is subordinate to his godfather, and that despite his privileged position as godson he too is mortal, leads to his downfall. Note that he is not satisfied with wealth and power, but now strives to marry a princess and win a crown. What is considered a legitimate goal in tales of magic becomes a mark of hubris in this tale. (198)

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14.  Defrauded of his own property:  There is a possibility that physician could be seen as violating his job as well as disobeying his godfather. Terry Jones and Alan Ereira write, "Unlike modern doctors, he {a medieval physician} did not try to stop a patient dying at all costs . . . rather if death seemed inevitable, he was duty-bound to try and help him or her die in the best possible way for their immortal soul" (135). While the Grimm story is published far after the middle ages, it is possible that this view influenced an earlier version of the tale. Stories of doctors cheating death and getting punished were around in Greek myth. Return to place in story.

15.  Cave below the earth:  The cave could be a reference to Hell. There is also Plato's metaphor of the cave, of being unable to see the light (Biedermann 61). A cave can also mean a return to the womb (Biedermann 62).
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16.  Candles were burning:  One candle is lit in baptism in the Catholic church (Catholic University of America 24).
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17.  He himself was in the hands of Death:  Death does not forgive but punishes and tricks.

Tatar notes :

Death is chosen as the godfather precisely because of his exquisite sense of social justice. Unwilling to snuff out one life even for his godson, he points out just why he is unable to act on the physician's desire. (200)

Tatar also notes that the tale ". . . reveals the complete powerlessness of the hero against death" (196).

Bruno Bettleheim points out that the death of a would- be-hero can symbolize that the person lacks the needed maturity to complete the task (180-181). The hero in "Godfather Death" does not know when to listen to his godfather and tries to gain even more than he has.
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Special thanks to Christine Ethier, an adjunct teacher of English writing at both Community College of Philadelphia and Camden County College, for providing the annotations to this tale.


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©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 1/2006; Last updated 7/9/07