The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

There was once a poor woman who gave birth to a little son; and as he came into the world with a caul on, it was predicted that in his fourteenth year he would have the King’s daughter for his wife. It happened that soon afterwards the King came into the village, and no one knew that he was the King, and when he asked the people what news there was, they answered, “A child has just been born with a caul on; whatever any one so born undertakes turns out well. It is prophesied, too, that in his fourteenth year he will have the King’s daughter for his wife.”

The King, who had a bad heart, and was angry about the prophecy, went to the parents, and, seeming quite friendly, said, “You poor people, let me have your child, and I will take care of it.” At first they refused, but when the stranger offered them a large amount of gold for it, and they thought, “It is a luck-child, and everything must turn out well for it.” they at last consented, and gave him the child.

What is a ’caul’? An external body that brings the creature good luck in this world, and that not only purely statistically, but predestined by fate. So we see again that a child is not a blank sheet when it is born into this world. In India, it is spoken of karma in this regard, inherited from the sins and merits of past lives. In the Christian world one speaks above all of original sin and less of inheritance. But where there is a minus, there must also be a plus, and it is certainly not in vain if we do much good in life and help others, even if the good fruits do not show up right away. Maybe you will enjoy this happiness only in the next life, like our lucky child in this fairy tale. He was even predicted the royal dignity, from which the reigning king immediately felt threatened. This happens in the outer world, but also on the spiritual level in our inside, where not always the noblest forces lead the rule. And so we want to read how a meritorious person masters the obstacles of this world.

The King put it in a box and rode away with it until he came to a deep piece of water; then he threw the box into it and thought, “I have freed my daughter from her unlooked-for suitor.” The box, how­ever, did not sink, but floated like a boat, and not a drop of water made its way into it. And it floated to within two miles of the King’s chief city, where there was a mill, and it came to a stand-still at the mill-dam. A miller’s boy, who by good luck was standing there, noticed it and pulled it out with a hook, thinking that he had found a great treasure, but when he opened it there lay a pretty boy inside, quite fresh and lively. He took him to the miller and his wife, and as they had no children they were glad, and said, “God has given him to us.” They took great care of the foundling, and he grew up in all goodness.

It happened that once in a storm the King went into the mill, and he asked the mill-folk if the tall youth was their son. “No,” answered they, “he’s a foundling. Fourteen years ago he floated down to the mill-dam in a box, and the mill-boy pulled him out of the water.” Then the King knew that it was none other than the luck-child which he had thrown into the water, and he said, “My good people, could not the youth take a letter to the Queen; I will give him two gold pieces as a reward?” - “Just as the King commands.” answered they, and they told the boy to hold himself in readiness. Then the King wrote a letter to the Queen, wherein he said, “As soon as the boy arrives with this letter, let him be killed and buried, and all must be done before I come home.”

The boy set out with this letter; but he lost his way, and in the evening came to a large forest. In the darkness he saw a small light; he went towards it and reached a cottage. When he went in, an old woman was sitting by the fire quite alone. She started when she saw the boy, and said, “Whence do you come, and whither are you going?” - “I come from the mill,” he answered, “and wish to go to the Queen, to whom I am taking a letter; but as I have lost my way in the forest I should like to stay here over night.” - “You poor boy,” said the woman, “you have come into a den of thieves, and when they come home they will kill you.” - “Let them come,” said the boy, “I am not afraid; but I am so tired that I cannot go any farther.” and he stretched himself upon a bench and fell asleep.

Soon afterwards the robbers came, and angrily asked what strange boy was lying there? “Ah,” said the old woman, “it is an innocent child who has lost himself in the forest, and out of pity I have let him come in; he has to take a letter to the Queen.” The robbers opened the letter and read it, and in it was written that the boy as soon as he arrived should be put to death. Then the hard-hearted robbers felt pity, and their leader tore up the letter and wrote another, saying, that soon as the boy came, he should be married at once to the King’s daughter. Then they let him lie quietly on the bench until the next morning, and when he awoke they gave him the letter, and showed him the right way.

And the Queen, when she had received the letter and read it, did as was written in it, and had a splendid wedding-feast prepared, and the King’s daughter was married to the luck-child; and as the youth was handsome and agreeable she lived with him in joy and contentment.

Well, that’s how a lucky child lives. Circumstances are progressing to good, and even the aberrations add to his happiness. His life is preserved, the mill of the world lovingly welcomes him, and virtuous people care for him. Even the wild robbers have pity on the boy, and though they bring so much evil to the world, they do much good in this case. Such a meritorious man radiates far into his surroundings. If only one in a hundred people had such meritorious charisma, then our whole world would be much friendlier. Such people are like bright lights that drive the darkness away. So we see that it pays to accumulate virtuous merits in life that bless everyone.

After some time the King returned to his palace and saw that the prophecy was fulfilled, and the luck-child married to his daughter. “How has that come to pass?” said he; “I gave quite another order in my letter.”

So the Queen gave him the letter, and said that he might see for himself what was written in it. The King read the letter and saw quite well that it had been exchanged for the other. He asked the youth what had become of the letter entrusted to him, and why he had brought another instead of it. “I know nothing about it,” answered he; “it must have been changed in the night, when I slept in the forest.” The King said in a passion, “You shall not have everything quite so much your own way; whosoever marries my daughter must fetch me from hell three golden hairs from the head of the devil; bring me what I want, and you shall keep my daughter.” In this way the King hoped to be rid of him for ever. But the luck-child answered, “I will fetch the golden hairs, I am not afraid of the Devil.” thereupon he took leave of them and began his journey.

Just as the parents already had great confidence in his good destiny, our lucky child also has a healthy self-confidence. What should he be afraid of? But the evil king does not give up. Who is this false king? At a deeper level, everyone will find him within themselves. It is a being that seeks only his own benefits, and has even managed to seize the rule of the world. He intrigues and lies to preserve his personal rule. And everything that threatens him is ruthlessly attacked. This, of course, reminds us of our beloved ego, who has risen to the king in our body-castle. And the wrathful king does everything to keep the reason away from the soul, and makes him meet the greatest challenges, which might break him. This method is often quite successful in ordinary life. But we already suspect that such a rule cannot last long.

The reason is forced to go to hell and fetch three golden hairs from the devil’s head. What does that mean? Why does the devil have golden hair on his head? This is a wonderful symbol! Gold stands for the true and the imperishable, even for the divine. And that can be found at the devil? Well, due to this mental polarity of god and devil, one should not imagine that both are far apart and you have to walk long to get from one to the other. These two poles are like a battery, where plus and minus meet inside and, so to speak, stand back to back, like the famous Janus face. Plus and minus poles only appear to the outside, god and devil. And the farther you go out, the bigger is the separation and accordingly the tension. That’s why our lucky child is probably going to the inside. And this mystical way into the own essence is described in the following with many symbols.

The road led him to a large town, where the watchman by the gates asked him what his trade was, and what he knew. “I know everything.” answered the luck-child. “Then you can do us a favour,” said the watchman, “if you will tell us why our market-fountain, which once flowed with wine has become dry, and no longer gives even water?” - “That you shall know,” answered he; “only wait until I come back.”

Then he went farther and came to another town, and there also the gatekeeper asked him what was his trade, and what he knew. “I know everything.” answered he. “Then you can do us a favour, and tell us why a tree in our town which once bore golden apples now does not even put forth leaves?” - “You shall know that,” answered he; “only wait until I come back.”

Then he went on and came to a wide river over which he must go. The ferryman asked him what his trade was, and what he knew. “I know everything.” answered he. “Then you can do me a favour,” said the ferryman, “and tell me why I must always be rowing backwards and forwards, and am never set free?” - “You shall know that,” answered he; “only wait until I come back.”

The path into the inside or the hereafter leads through two gates and over a water. The guards ask him about the state of his knowledge. Without higher or deeper knowledge you probably will not get there. Our lucky child always answers: “I know everything! And I’ll answer your questions when I return from this trip to the inside.” That’s a wonderful saying! Because the truth is hidden in each of us. There the great wisdom or omniscience waits to be discovered. Everyone can find it inside. There is the biggest treasure hidden. But still, this pure well does not bubble with divine nectar, and the tree of life bears no eternal fruit. And so, in endless cycles, through birth and death, we wander between the hereafter and the here, and travel across the river of death without ever being redeemed. This river of the death with the ferryman is a very ancient and widespread symbol. It is already found among the ancient Egyptians as well as among the ancient Greeks and Germans or in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

When he had crossed the water he found the entrance to Hell. It was black and sooty within, and the Devil was not at home, but his grandmother was sitting in a large arm-chair. “What do you want?” said she to him, but she did not look so very wicked. “I should like to have three golden hairs from the devil’s head,” answered he, “else I cannot keep my wife.” - “That is a good deal to ask for,” said she; “if the devil comes home and finds you, it will cost you your life; but as I pity you, I will see if I cannot help you.” She changed him into an ant and said, “Creep into the folds of my dress, you will be safe there.” - “Yes,” answered he, “so far, so good; but there are three things besides that I want to know: why a fountain which once flowed with wine has become dry, and no longer gives even water; why a tree which once bore golden apples does not even put forth leaves; and why a ferry-man must always be going backwards and forwards, and is never set free?” “Those are difficult questions,” answered she, “but only be silent and quiet and pay attention to what the devil says when I pull out the three golden hairs.”

In the realm of the dead he finds the entrance to the dark hell. There he first meets the grandmother of the devil. The ’great mother’ reminds us of mother nature, which naturally also exists there and sits in the arm-chair (in German: Sorgenstuhl - ’caring chair’). That means, she cares for the wellbeing of the beings who live in her kingdom. Of course, our lucky child is well received also here in hell and finds help. For that he is turned into an ant. For truly, whoever wants to attain the Great Spirit must physically become very small. And how does it work? It is quite simple because we are here in a spiritual realm where the mind can take on any form.

As the evening came on the devil returned home. No sooner had he entered than he noticed that the air was not pure. “I smell man’s flesh,” said he; “all is not right here.” Then he pried into every corner, and searched, but could not find anything. His grandmother scolded him. “It has just been swept,” said she, “and everything put in order, and now you are upsetting it again; you have always got man’s flesh in your nose. Sit down and eat your supper.”

When he had eaten and drunk he was tired, and laid his head in his grandmother’s lap, and before long he was fast asleep, snoring and breathing heavily. Then the old woman took hold of a golden hair, pulled it out, and laid it down near her. “Oh!” cried the devil, “What are you doing?” - “I have had a bad dream,” answered the grandmother, “so I seized hold of your hair.” - “What did you dream then?” said the devil. “I dreamed that a fountain in a market-place from which wine once flowed was dried up, and not even water would flow out of it; what is the cause of it?” - “Oh, ho! If they did but know it,” answered the devil; “there is a toad sitting under a stone in the well; if they killed it, the wine would flow again.”

He went to sleep again and snored until the windows shook. Then she pulled the second hair out. “Ha! What are you doing?” cried the devil angrily. “Do not take it ill,” said she, “I did it in a dream.” “What have you dreamt this time?” asked he. “I dreamt that in a certain kingdom there stood an apple-tree which had once borne golden apples, but now would not even bear leaves. What, think you, was the reason?” - “Oh! If they did but know.” answered the devil. “A mouse is gnawing at the root; if they killed this they would have golden apples again, but if it gnaws much longer the tree will wither altogether. But leave me alone with your dreams: if you disturb me in my sleep again you will get a box on the ear.”

The grandmother spoke gently to him until he fell asleep again and snored. Then she took hold of the third golden hair and pulled it out. The devil jumped up, roared out, and would have treated her ill, but she quieted him once more and said, “Who can help bad dreams?” - “What was the dream, then?” asked he, and was quite curious. “I dreamt of a ferry-man who complained that he must always ferry from one side to the other, and was never released. What is the cause of it?” “Ah! The fool,” answered the devil; “when any one comes and wants to go across he must put the oar in his hand, and the other man will have to ferry and he will be free.”

When it gets dark in the mind, the devil comes home. And he smells people already at a great distance. That stands to reason, because he was created by human thought itself. And as they fight each other, they also magically attract each other. After all, the devil is nothing but a personalization of our own sins, which take us to the judgment of truth or of God. The fact that our lucky child is not immediately recognized and condemned here already indicates a certain spiritual purity. The accusation that the devil throws everything together here is certainly no coincidence, because this term comes from the ancient Greek ’Diabolos’, which means something like ’jumbler’ or ’confuser’. Well, when the devil sleeps, you should use the time to defeat him, by this great recognition that he otherwise conceals. This, of course, is suggested in a wonderful symbolism, that may be difficult to understand.

The first question associated with the first golden hair refers to the well, which no longer gives wine. This fountain reminds us of the biblical story when Jesus said to the Samaritan, “Whoever drinks of this (worldly) water will be thirsting again. But whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst. But the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water that swells into eternal life. “And the wine reminds us of the divine nectar, as Jesus changed the worldly water in heavenly wine at the great wedding feast of the soul, that even symbolizes his own blood at the sacrament. Of course, there is also the worldly wine that intoxicates us, but this is obviously not meant here. And what is the answer? A toad sits in the depth and blocks the spring. The toad is an ancient symbol of an earthly being that comes out of the darkness, and is often associated with sin, deadly poison and greed. One should probably search in this direction, in the depth, to find out what blocks the fountain of truth in us.

The second golden hair is connected to the question why the tree of life brings no more eternal fruit and threatens to wither. This tree can be found not only at the beginning of the Bible, but in almost all ancient cultures. By the ancient Germanic people, for example, it was called Yggdrasil, who symbolizes the entire cosmos as a world tree. And as in our fairy tale a mouse gnaws at the root and threatens the tree, so it is there the dragon Nidhöggr, and in the Indian Mahabharata white and black rats are described [MHB 11.6]. All these are surely symbols of the ravages of time that gnaw at every creature. Of course, this all-encompassing impermanence is a great challenge that must be mastered on the way to truth in order to free oneself from the fetters of illusion. As long as you have not defeated this enemy, everything is threatened and there can be no eternal fruits. Even if it’s just a little grey mouse, that lives in the dark and is hard to find.

The third question for the third golden hair concerns the mystical ferryman, who is constantly rowing from bank to bank on the river of death, bringing the soul to the hereafter and back into this world in endless circles. Who is this ferryman who has meanwhile become tired of the eternal back and forth and asks for salvation? We should be aware that on the journey into our inner self, of course, we only ever meet ourselves. The self takes on all forms and works in every being. Inside are no ’others’ anymore. So this ferryman is a wonderful symbol that points far into the depths. Who is it that moves this body and lets this soul wander through the worlds? And what is the deliverance from all wanderings? The question may seem absurd to us at first. Because our modern ideals wish to travel through the world for as long as possible and as far as possible, to always see new things and never come to rest.

This is probably due to our modern worldview that life ends with death. Therefore we are hardly aware of this eternal cycle. So why should we look for salvation when everything comes to an end with death? That is probably also the reason why we nowadays take so little responsibility for the future generations on this earth and, above all, only think about ourselves. But practically, life goes on and on. For millions of years, people have been born who learn from their parents and go the same way over and over again. Even if they think they are doing everything differently and better, very few are really as free as our lucky child in this fairy tale. And those who really become aware of this endless hamster wheel may at some point ask for salvation in order to free themselves from this cycle of birth and death.

And what is the answer to this question in the fairy tale: “Give up the oar and do not stick to it! Then you are free... “Extremely amazing! Similarly, the Mahabharata speaks: “The wise, however, mounts a boat with sails and crosses the water without effort. When he arrives on the other shore, he leaves the boat behind, because he is free from the thought of ’mine.’ [MHB 14.50]” Granted, that is a very confusing message for us, because in this ’mine’ we seek great happiness these days in life.

As the grandmother had plucked out the three golden hairs, and the three questions were answered, she let the old serpent alone, and he slept until daybreak.

So it’s the great mother, the nature, that helps us to true knowledge. And then you should leave this mystical serpent alone, who is perhaps just a fire breathing angel, until the time comes again, that he must fulfil his task in this universe.

When the devil had gone out again the old woman took the ant out of the folds of her dress, and gave the luck-child his human shape again. “There are the three golden hairs for you.” said she. “What the Devil said to your three questions, I suppose you heard?” - “Yes,” answered he, “I heard, and will take care to remember.” - “You have what you want,” said she, “and now you can go your way.” He thanked the old woman for helping him in his need, and left hell well content that everything had turned out so fortunately.

When he came to the ferry-man he was expected to give the promised answer. “Ferry me across first,” said the luck-child, “and then I will tell you how you can be set free.” and when he reached the opposite shore he gave him the devil’s advice: “Next time any one comes, who wants to be ferried over, just put the oar in his hand.” He went on and came to the town wherein stood the unfruitful tree, and there too the watchman wanted an answer. So he told him what he had heard from the devil: “Kill the mouse which is gnawing at its root, and it will again bear golden apples.” Then the watchman thanked him, and gave him as a reward two asses laden with gold, which followed him. At last he came to the town whose well was dry. He told the watchman what the devil had said: “A toad is in the well beneath a stone; you must find it and kill it, and the well will again give wine in plenty.” The watchman thanked him, and also gave him two asses laden with gold.

As our lucky child now returns to this world, he solves all the riddles and wins the eternal reward, which is symbolized here again with lots of gold. Wonderful in this fairy tale is that the evil-minded king sent our lucky child on this mystical journey, which was so gainful for him. Yes, everyone has his task in the world.

At last the luck-child got home to his wife, who was heartily glad to see him again, and to hear how well he had prospered in everything. To the King he took what he had asked for, the devil’s three golden hairs, and when the King saw the four asses laden with gold he was quite content, and said, “Now all the conditions are fulfilled, and you can keep my daughter. But tell me, dear son-in-law, where did all that gold come from? This is tremendous wealth!” - “I was rowed across a river,” answered he, “and got it there; it lies on the shore instead of sand.” - “Can I too fetch some of it?” said the King; and he was quite eager about it. “As much as you like.” answered he. “There is a ferry-man on the river; let him ferry you over, and you can fill your sacks on the other side.” The greedy King set out in all haste, and when he came to the river he beckoned to the ferry-man to put him across. The ferry-man came and bade him get in, and when they got to the other shore he put the oar in his hand and sprang out. But from this time forth the King had to ferry, as a punishment for his sins.

Now husband and wife - in this fairy tale one could also speak of reason and soul - are reunited happily, and the lucky child has become a true king. And the false king? His passion makes him reach for the material gold. But it is precisely this selfish desire that binds him to the cycle of the world, and so he now has to painstakingly row back and forth. That’s probably the big problem of our ego: it just cannot let go...

Perhaps he is ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oar from him.

One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes - (topic: normality)
Rapunzel - (topic: spirit-soul-illusion)
Faithful John - (topic: overcoming opposites through reason)
The Wonderful Musician - (topic: The great harmony)
The White Snake - (topic: The ring of true love and connectedness)
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (topic: soul-desire-ego)
The Girl Without Hands - (topic: The path of suffering to salvation)
Briar-Rose or Sleeping Beauty - (topic: The rigor mortis of nature)
Our Lady’s Child - (topic: The divine sense of nature)
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry - (topic: spirit-nature)
Sweet Porridge - (topic: poverty and abundance)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014,
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /