Talking "go to the Devil" literally
Updated: Apr 14
On the twelfth day of our posts on magical folklore we've got a visit to the Devil and the helpful mediation of one of the most famous witches in folklore.
Sometimes you set out to accomplish the impossible. You go on a whim or on a dare, to prove that you can or because you have nothing to lose. In folklore this happens all the time. Some of the greatest adventures are undertaken by folks who don't know any better who believe it's possible so they make it possible.
Reading this Yiddish folktale about meeting the Devil, I expected trickery and riddles because there are often both trickery and riddles in tales that deal in a devil. Our adventurer must gather information surreptitiously, and what he needs most is a magical informant. Who accepts the role, but Baba Yaga herself! Such a wonderful surprise!
When I was a little girl I read a children's book from the library about a girl going into the forest and meeting a witch who lived in a house that walked around on chicken feet. I read it over and over and over. I can't remember what it was called, but I do remember the illustrations distinctly. One day maybe I'll find a copy and add it to my library at home.
Baba Yaga has dozens upon dozens of tales to her name. An entire body of work exists around her. In a trilogy of songs I wrote about the Russian character, Vasilisa, the second act is all about her encounter with the witch who changes her life. Whenever Baba Yaga appears in a tale I am excited. What I love about her appearance in this one is that she takes on the role of magical mediator. We find her most often when life is most challenging, as if she is saying, "the pieces are scattered, now choose your own fate."
Two Brothers Who Went to the Devil
There are two brothers, one poor, one rich. The poor brother goes to the rich one to ask for help, but his brother tells him to "go to the devil" so he does. On the long journey there he comes across a man carrying people across a river who asks the poor brother where he's going. When he says, "to the devil," the ferryman asks if he could discover why he is forced to carry people across the river and cannot leave. The poor man says he will and continues on.
Next he meets a houseful of young women who ask him if he might find out why none of them are married. A little farther along he meets a tree with no leaves that wonders why it cannot grow them. Taking all these questions with him, the poor man continues on until he finds a house on chicken feet. He tells the old woman on the step that he is looking for the Devil and she says he's found the right place.
Transforming him into a needle she sticks him in the kitchen curtain. When the Devil comes home he smells a trace of him but doesn't think to check the curtains for needles. Out loud the Devil muses about his day to the old woman and reveals each of the secrets the poor man has been tasked to uncover.
The tree cannot grow leaves because a treasure is buried beneath it. If someone were to remove it the tree would grow leaves healthy and strong. The young women cannot marry because they have not swept clean their house. And the ferryman only has to dip one of his passengers into the water to be freed from carrying people across the river forever.
The next morning after the Devil leaves, the old woman transforms the poor man from needle to human again and sends him on his way. When he arrives at the tree he digs up the treasure and the tree bursts into leaf. When he arrives at the house of young women he asks for a meal and then reveals that they need only sweep out their house, which they do and immediately find husbands, one and all.
When he reaches the river he tells the ferryman what the Devil said and he dips his next passenger in the water to free himself from his enchanted task. With the treasure still under his arm, the poor man goes home, builds a house, and is happy.
The rich brother demands to know what happened and where he got his good fortune, and when the once-poor brother tells him he determines to get some for himself. But the tree scratches him, the women hit him with troughs, and the man at the river pushes him in so he is forced to carry people across instead. He never gets to the Devil.
Lesson learned: if you've got the choice between asking for help from the Devil or Baba Yaga, choose the witch every time. She may be a wily old antagonist, but she's not The Adversary.
"Two Brothers Who Went to the Devil" from Yiddish Folktales, edited by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, translated by Leonard Wolf (NY: Schocken Books, with YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988), pp. 98-100.