The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Godfather Death

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

A poor man had twelve children and was forced to work night and day to give them even bread. When therefore the thirteenth came into the world, he knew not what to do in his trouble, but ran out into the great highway, and resolved to ask the first person whom he met to be godfather.

We often find this game with 12 and 13 in the old fairy tales. One could assume that it has to do with the moon months of the year, because there are years with 12 or 13 moon months. The thirteenth month, therefore, played a special role, and appeared like a whim of nature disturbing the ordinary rhythm, so that the number 13 was considered a lucky number in some areas and an unfortunate number in others. Well, even in our fairy tale, the thirteenth child was probably a child too much and now plays a special role. It is dedicated to nature, which is supposed to somehow serve as the godfather for the child.

The first to meet him was the good God who already knew what filled his heart, and said to him, “Poor man, I pity thee. I will hold thy child at its christening, and will take charge of it and make it happy on earth.” The man said, “Who art thou?” “I am God.” “Then I do not desire to have thee for a godfather,” said the man; “thou givest to the rich, and leavest the poor to hunger.” Thus spake the man, for he did not know how wisely God apportions riches and poverty. He turned therefore away from the Lord, and went farther. Then the Devil came to him and said, “What seekest thou? If thou wilt take me as a godfather for thy child, I will give him gold in plenty and all the joys of the world as well.” The man asked, “Who art thou?” “I am the Devil.” “Then I do not desire to have thee for godfather,” said the man; “thou deceivest men and leadest them astray.”

’Do you believe in God?’ This question is often heard, and usually a clear confession is expected. However, if one asks what is meant by the term ’God’, then suddenly all clarity disappears, and we face different views. The biggest problem is that normally we can only think in opposites. And that is exactly what is expressed here in an excellent way. First, God is made a positive pole and stands for everything good in the world, and the devil becomes a negative pole and stands for everything bad. Later on God is accused that, despite his almightiness, he allows the evil and the unjust on earth. Therefore the doubts grow and one turns away. This is still the case today for many people. Who wants to trust a god who is unjust? But the question of justice is very difficult. What justice can there be for personal wealth and individual values? Who deserves how much in this world?

He went onwards, and then came Death striding up to him with withered legs, and said, “Take me as godfather.” The man asked, “Who art thou?” “I am Death, and I make all equal.” Then said the man, “Thou art the right one, thou takest the rich as well as the poor, without distinction; thou shalt be godfather.” Death answered, “I will make thy child rich and famous, for he who has me for a friend can lack nothing.” The man said, “Next Sunday is the christening; be there at the right time.” Death appeared as he had promised, and stood godfather quite in the usual way.

Even in Hinduism, Yama is the God of righteousness, who takes the souls to the realm of the dead in order to judge and rule over them after they have left their bodies during death. This means reaping the fruits that you have accumulated in your life. We also speak of the Grim Reaper holding his scythe, because the scythe is an old symbol of the harvest. Some souls will reap happiness and others suffering. This judgment of the dead is a very old idea that we already find in ancient Egypt as well as in the Bible. Usually it is spoken of an impartial justice where the soul can no longer hide its merits and its debts accumulated in life. Here acts the law of cause and effect, and that is why we speak of true justice. Behind this, of course, stands the famous Law of Karma, which states that all our thoughts, words and deeds have their effect and none of it is lost, much like the law of physical energy conservation. This is understood in physics, but hardly believed in everyday life, and if so, then only in theory. We usually think that we can somehow escape our small and big sins as long as they remain secret. Why not? You can try it, because that’s what man lives for, to gain practical experience.

Death speaks here another great sentence: “He who has me as a friend cannot lack anything.” How is that meant? Normally, death is our greatest enemy, and we make life and death a polarity of good and bad because we can usually only think in opposites. Then we try to capture the good and get rid of the bad. How should this work? The more positive the good, the worse the bad. The more we selfishly cling to life, the greater the fear of death and disease becomes. It would be better to propitiate the opposites and also to have death as a friend. One says, whoever can completely dissolve the contrast of death and life, can even overcome death and find eternal life. This theme also runs through the Gospels of the Bible and it says: “Whoever wants to hold on to his life will lose it. But he who loses it in God will find it.” And how one creates death by holding on to life, one also creates poverty by holding on to wealth. First, poverty arises around us because we want to be richer than others, and then in the end we have to face poverty ourselves, because the law of karma works accordingly.

When the boy had grown up, his godfather one day appeared and bade him go with him. He led him forth into a forest, and showed him a herb which grew there, and said, “Now shalt thou receive thy godfather’s present. I make thee a celebrated physician. When thou art called to a patient, I will always appear to thee. If I stand by the head of the sick man, thou mayst say with confidence that thou wilt make him well again, and if thou givest him of this herb he will recover; but if I stand by the patient’s feet, he is mine, and thou must say that all remedies are in vain, and that no physician in the world could save him. But beware of using the herb against my will, or it might fare ill with thee.”

The boy is led into nature to learn something special. In other versions of this tale, this teaching lasts three years, sitting silently at the feet of his teacher. There are things that man can learn through rational thinking by words and writings. Other things are learned through intuition and a deeper view and this requires inner silence, so that you can hear the soft voices of nature. These are the godparents gifts of nature, on the one hand the knowledge about the healing and on the other hand the view on the nature of illness, in this case on death itself. Even today a good doctor should have the necessary intuition in addition to the medical knowledge, in order to perceive the soft voices of nature, and to be aware that although he can give the right medication, but the effect is in the hands of nature. The big question is, how much you can and should force nature? The warning is clearly stated: Beware of abuse of the abilities given to you! This reminds us of the oath of Hippocrates, which unfortunately is no longer binding for our doctors today.

It was not long before the youth was the most famous physician in the whole world. “He had only to look at the patient and he knew his condition at once, and if he would recover, or must needs die.” So they said of him, and from far and wide people came to him, sent for him when they had any one ill, and gave him so much money that he soon became a rich man. Now it so befell that the King became ill, and the physician was summoned, and was to say if recovery were possible. But when he came to the bed, Death was standing by the feet of the sick man, and the herb did not grow which could save him. “If I could but cheat Death for once,” thought the physician, “he is sure to take it ill if I do, but, as I am his godson, he will shut one eye; I will risk it.” He therefore took up the sick man, and laid him the other way, so that now Death was standing by his head. Then he gave the King some of the herb, and he recovered and grew healthy again. But Death came to the physician, looking very black and angry, threatened him with his finger, and said, “Thou hast overreached me; this time I will pardon it, as thou art my godson; but if thou venturest it again, it will cost thee thy neck, for I will take thee thyself away with me.”

Soon afterwards the King’s daughter fell into a severe illness. She was his only child, and he wept day and night, so that he began to lose the sight of his eyes, and he caused it to be made known that whosoever rescued her from death should be her husband and inherit the crown. When the physician came to the sick girl’s bed, he saw Death by her feet. He ought to have remembered the warning given by his godfather, but he was so infatuated by the great beauty of the King’s daughter, and the happiness of becoming her husband, that he flung all thought to the winds. He did not see that Death was casting angry glances on him, that he was raising his hand in the air, and threatening him with his withered fist. He raised up the sick girl, and placed her head where her feet had lain. Then he gave her some of the herb, and instantly her cheeks flushed red, and life stirred afresh in her.

Now the story takes the human course. Since Adam and Eve, it has always been the same problem: we reach for the fruits of our actions and seek personal gain, first in wealth, then in fame, and finally in rule. And so we abuse the abilities, which nature has given us, for selfish goals. Why does it work? Where is the righteousness of death, which was so praised in the beginning? Why does death tolerate the deceit of the doctor? Of course, it works, because we should never forget that humans too are part of nature and have their open space here. But reason tells us that something like that cannot last long. Who disregards the warnings of nature, will have to bear the consequences. And nature is very patient with us, warns us many times and always gives us the chance to learn. In the end it says: Who wants to cheat death, comes under his rule. Because you cannot cheat nature, only yourself.

When Death saw that for a second time he was defrauded of his own property, he walked up to the physician with long strides, and said, “All is over with thee, and now the lot falls on thee.” and seized him so firmly with his icecold hand, that he could not resist, and led him into a cave below the earth. There he saw how thousands and thousands of candles were burning in countless rows, some large, others half-sized, others small. Every instant some were extinguished, and others again burnt up, so that the flames seemed to leap hither and thither in perpetual change. “See,” said Death, “these are the lights of men’s lives. The large ones belong to children, the half-sized ones to married people in their prime, the little ones belong to old people; but children and young folks likewise have often only a tiny candle.”

And how does Mother Nature teach us? She shows us her inner essence as far as you want and can see it. And certainly, our doctor had the competency. The light of life is also an ancient symbol. It is like a candle that burns slowly and in the end it goes out. It is even said that the size of the candle and thus the length of life are in some way predetermined. This can be very calming for some people because you do not have to worry about it all the time. But you can think about how you can have an influence on whether the light burns calmly or stormily. It is also said that “the flames seemed to leap back and forth in constant change”. That's very well-worded and reminds us of the apparent wandering of the soul, which is also called rebirth.

Of course that’s a great topic. There are many different theories, from enthusiastic blind faith to total rejection. To what extent nature cares about our theories, is difficult to say, because somehow these theories are also part of nature and contribute to the whole. Surprisingly, even our modern science cannot give a plausible answer to the question of the origin of earthly life. In this regard, some even seek refuge in extra-terrestrials, claiming that our life came to Earth on meteorites from somewhere in space. Our science likes to look outward, while our doctor is led inside, into this dark cave of our being, which is seldom enlightened by the light of consciousness. But how does life come about? Who lights these lights? Certainly, the law of cause and effect also plays an essential role here, and just as the clouds in the sky develop under certain conditions, somehow what we call life and soul also arise under certain conditions. How far these conditions reach and how deep the roots of the causes are depend on how far one can think, and in the end perhaps even the whole universe is connected with it.

Another question is, if there is a personal soul that wanders through world and lifes. Of course, our identity card and the record in the family register have a certain truth, similar to the purchase contract for a house and the registration in the land register. But we also know that even the forces of nature hardly adhere to these boundaries of property. And as it blows away or burn the house of one person, the other is deprived of his health and finally even his body. Will it continue after death? Of course, somehow the world continues to revolve and everything we have thought, spoken and done in life is part of the whole and certainly will not be without effect. The extent to which one sees oneself in this way is left to one’s own imagination or modesty; everything from a depressive wastrel to an arrogant tyrant is possible.

“Show me the light of my life,” said the physician, and he thought that it would be still very tall. Death pointed to a little end which was just threatening to go out, and said, “Behold, it is there.” “Ah, dear godfather,” said the horrified physician, “light a new one for me, do it for love of me, that I may enjoy my life, be King, and the husband of the King’s beautiful daughter.” -“I cannot,” answered Death, “one must go out before a new one is lighted.” - “Then place the old one on a new one, that will go on burning at once when the old one has come to an end.” pleaded the physician. Death behaved as if he were going to fulfil his wish, and took hold of a tall new candle; but as he desired to revenge himself, he purposely made a mistake in fixing it, and the little piece fell down and was extinguished. Immediately the physician fell on the ground, and now he himself was in the hands of Death.

“Show me the light of my life!” Already this entreaty brings us death, because certainly our life light is never big enough. And the doctor naturally asks for a bigger one to enjoy his life. Can he ever come to a happy ending on this path? Well, nature makes sure that something like this will not happen, and death makes it very clear that you have to die to be born again with a new light. But still, our doctor tries to cheat death and wishes that his present candle, as soon as it has burned down, immediately kindles a new one. That probably means he does not want to leave this world to be born again, because he clings on his personal possessions. He wants to hold on to what is given to him only for a time.

Sure, you can try it! But in the end all our subtle efforts to trick nature by rational thinking must fail. The attempt of the doctor also fails, he only cheats himself and loses the little rest of his life. Because what you want to hold on to selfishly, you have to lose. Or as Goethe wrote: “For everything must fall into nothing that wants to persist in being.” One would think that this fairy tale has no good end. Because man loses and nature wins. But after all, death keeps its righteousness, and moreover one must assume that the light of our doctor was not gone forever, because otherwise no one could have told us of this mystical cave of life-lights. So maybe a happy ending, at least an instructive one.

There is a poem by Goethe [One and All] that goes well with this fairy tale.

One and All

To find ourselves in boundless being
Who would not vanish , gladly fleeing
From all that wearied and annoys;
No ardent wants, no wild desiring,
No duties strict, no orders tiring,
Such self-surrender each enjoys.
World-soul, come, let your force pervade us!
To combat the world-spirit aid us
And match our powers to these high stakes.
Then sympathetic spirits guide us,
As gentle masters walk beside us
To him who all things made and makes.
To take what’s made and then re-make it,
To fight rigidity and break it,
Eternal living action quest.
What never was grows real and fuller,
As pure clean suns, as worlds with colour,
And in becoming never rest.
It all must move, make new creations,
First take form, then transformations;
For moments it just seems held fast.
In all things life’s perpertuated,
And all must be annihilated
That exsistence strives to last

The Godfather

A poor man had so many children that he had already asked every one in the world to be godfather, and when still another child was born, no one else was left whom he could invite. He knew not what to do, and, in his perplexity, he lay down and fell asleep. Then he dreamt that he was to go outside the gate, and ask the first person who met him to be godfather. When he awoke, he determined to obey his dream, and went outside the gate, and asked the first person who came up to him to be god- father. The stranger presented him with a little glass of water, and said, “This is a wonderful water, with it thou canst heal the sick, only thou must see where Death is standing. If he is standing by the patient’s head, give the patient some of the water and he will be healed, but if Death is standing by his feet, all trouble will be in vain, for the sick man must die.” From this time forth, the man could always say whether a patient could be saved or not, and became famous for his skill, and earned a great deal of money. Once he was called in to the child of the King, and when he entered, he saw Death standing by the child’s head and cured it with the water, and he did the same a second time, but the third time Death was standing by its feet, and then he knew the child was forced to die.

In this fairy tale we exceptionally rely on the version from the book of the Brothers Grimm of 1812, because we think it has lost a lot of meaning in later revisions. Therefore we had to adapt the translation by M. Hunt. The beginning of this fairy tale is basically the same as the previous one, only a little shorter. Interesting is maybe the second part. If godfather death came to the doctor or appeared before him in the other version, the doctor now goes to his godfather and visits him in his house. Here we should also be aware that even in the Middle Ages, the profession of a physician was very closely connected with natural history, alchemy and spirituality. Today we might call such a person a Shaman.

Once the man thought he would visit the godfather, and tell him how he had succeeded with the water. But when he entered the house, it was such a strange establishment! On the first flight of stairs, the broom and shovel were disputing, and knocking each other about violently. He asked them, “Where does the godfather live?” The broom replied, “One flight of stairs higher up.” When he came to the second flight, he saw a heap of dead fingers lying. He asked, “Where does the godfather live?” One of the fingers replied, “One flight of stairs higher.” On the third flight lay a heap of dead heads, which again directed him to a flight beyond. On the fourth flight, he saw fishes on the fire, which frizzled in the pans and baked themselves. They, too, said, “One flight of stairs higher.” And when he had ascended the fifth, he came to the door of a room and peeped through the keyhole, and there he saw the godfather who had a pair of long horns. When he opened the door and went in, the godfather put the horns into bed in a great hurry and covered them up.

Then said the man, “Sir godfather, what a strange household you have! When I came to your first flight of stairs, the shovel and broom were quarrelling, and beating each other violently.” - “How stupid you are!” said the godfather. “That was the boy and the maid talking to each other.” - “But on the second flight I saw dead fingers lying.” - “Oh, how silly you are! Those were some roots of black salsify.” - “On the third flight lay a heap of dead men’s heads.” - “Foolish man, those were cabbages.” “On the fourth flight, I saw fishes in a pan, which were hissing and baking themselves.” When he had said that, the fishes came and served themselves up. “And when I got to the fifth flight, I peeped through the keyhole of a door, and there, godfather, I saw you, and you had long, long horns.” - “Oh, that is not true!”

We already know from the last fairy tale that our doctor had the ability to see something that others around him did not see. Here are five staircases that lead up to the house of the godfather, this mystical being, which stands here beyond death and life. On the way upstairs we meet with strange symbols that can somehow be interpreted. For example, one could see in it a mental higher development. On the lowest level, the natural opposites are in conflict. The broom sweeps up and the shovel gathers it. Both are cleaning agents in the house. They say, “Climb higher!” There are many dead fingers on the second level. The fingers as part of the hand may indicate action, and they may be dead because at this stage, one no longer reaches out for the fruits of his deeds. Then the deeds no longer sow karmic seeds. The action without attachment speaks to us: “Climb higher!” On the third level you will find dead heads. This could mean that thinking, too, has reached a certain purity and has become free of attachment, so that we are no longer compulsively controlled and tormented by our thoughts. On the fourth level, there are fish that cook or fry themselves. The fish is a very old symbol and can stand for the life, which is closely connected to the water, and so it also may stand for the soul.

In the Christian context it could also mean Jesus, the Son of God, who sacrifices himself here on earth, so that we finally awake from our delusion. He broke the bread for supper and said: “Take, this is my body!” Then he seized the chalice, thanked and said: “Drink, this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which will be shed for all beings!” Why a supper? This food does not point to the fading day to receive some energy to work or walk, but to the eternal day to receive the pure and immortal consciousness that shines even when it is dark night in the world outside. And St. Augustine heard in awe a voice from above, saying, “I am the food of the strong. Grow and you will enjoy me! But you will not turn me into you, like the food of your flesh, you will be transformed into me. [Confessions 7.10]”

Here, too, the fish sacrifice themselves by cooking themselves, that means changing, working on themselves, making themselves soft and flexible and dissolving the hardened ego. It also reminds of the old witches with their witch-cauldrons, in which the whole world was magically cooked. Or think of the idea of hell, where the hardest sinners are cleaned in boiling cauldrons, until their ego falls apart and is finally released. The goal is a higher development, and so we find a door on the fifth level and there we look first through a small hole on a being that can take on all forms and wear any mask. What a great thing! On this mental level, all opposites disappear, which normally occupy our thoughts so much. In his case the devil shows up, who is often illustrated with two horns, which probably point to his animal and opposing nature, and who is fundamentally against all the good. Thus, the devil quickly becomes the negative pole, in contrast to God as a positive pole, which leads to the eternal battle between the divine and the demonic. But if you look a little deeper, you will realize that even the devil is only a spiritual being who has to fulfil his God-given task in this world. Or as Goethe makes the devil say [Faust 1]:

(I am) Part of that Power, not understood,
Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.

I am the Spirit that Denies!
And justly so: for all things, from the Void
Called forth, deserve to be destroyed:
’Twere better, then, were naught created.
Thus, all which you as Sin have rated,—
Destruction,—aught with Evil blent,—
That is my proper element.

The modest truth I speak to thee.
If Man, that microcosmic fool, can see
Himself a whole so frequently,
Part of the Part am I, once All, in primal Night,—
Part of the Darkness which brought forth the Light…

It is said that sometimes God is so well disguised that even the wisest can barely recognize him. But if you go through the door on this fifth step, then he puts down his disguise and shows his true nature. And how does that show? All of these strange beings that our doctor perceives through his extended vision are something natural and normal. You do not have to fancy it when you see such “ghosts”. At the lowest level, natural opposites, often symbolized as male and female forces, are of great help to us in life and in every spiritual development. The fingers on the second level may be nothing more than the dark roots of action, from which, on the next step, the shaggy weed grows in our heads. We have a saying in German for “higgledy-piggledy”: “wie Kraut und Rüben – like cabbage and turnips”, which points to disorder and chaos. The fish eventually serve themselves as food to the Supreme Being, thus uniting with the Supreme. And the long devil horns? “Oh, you stupid and simple-minded man, that’s not true!”

Well, when we speak of liberation, salvation, awakening, or enlightenment, it’s all about the truth. Of course that’s a big talking point. But the question here is whether the strange beings that our doctor sees by his deeper vision really exist and are true, because other people do not seem to see them. Is that all nonsense when you see such “strange spirits”?

Maybe a little philosophical excursion: What is reality? Normally it is everything that has an effect. And sure, these strange creatures have their effect, otherwise we could not philosophize here. In practice, illness and death naturally have their effect.

And what is truth? This is usually what we recognize and therefore accept as truth. And above all, it’s about the proven practical use in life, that is relative truth. For example, if I’m in Chemnitz and ask someone how to get to Berlin, then maybe he says, “Northbound.” That would be a relative truth to me personally, depending on my point of view and my goal. For someone else who is in Hamburg, for example, that would be a lie. Thus, we may also consider these “strange spirits” as relative truths that correspond to the spiritual developmental stage of our physician. They play an important role in his life, and are useful to him. But when we speak of spiritual awakening or enlightenment, it is all about the absolute truth, and it is said that all that we perceive with our ordinary senses is not absolute, but relative truth, what you can even call ignorance or illusion, because every human recognizes it differently and confused according to his experiences and views. This could be meant here with the last sentence at the highest level of spiritual development, that one finally realizes that all these visible things are not an absolute truth.

When we speak of five stages of development as well as doctor and cure, we should also mention Paracelsus, who as a doctor in the 16th century explained the disease and, accordingly, the healing of a human with five levels. It starts on the physical level, from the psychosomatic and spiritual to the divine level. He himself has tried everything in life to achieve mastery to the fifth and highest levels in this physical house, his body.

At the German Wikipedia we read about him [Paracelsus]:
According to Paracelsus, medicine is based on knowledge of nature and of God. On the one hand empirical findings and on the other - and far more importantly - the consideration of the big picture are necessary for the understanding of things and thus also of the diseases and their correct treatment: “For man can only be understood from the macrocosm, not out of himself. Only the knowledge of this agreement (or unity) completes the doctor. He knows the world, and with it the human beings, who together are only one thing and not two, which is confirmed by experience. The layman sees the surface. To see the interior, the secret is reserved for the doctor.” (Opus Paramirum). For Paracelsus, the material body is merely a part of the complete body, which is largely invisible to the ordinary observer. However, anyone who participates in the divine enlightenment, the divine fire through continuous work on himself (inner transformation), can see the world with different eyes, i.e. “In the light of nature” (Opus Paramirum), and only such a man would be good as a doctor, because: “It is wrong in medicine to draw his knowledge of hearsay and reading. But one must ask oneself: how did the first teach? And the one who taught him, shall teach us. The force of nature in the fire is also our teacher.” and “The fire but makes visible what else is in the dark. According to this method, the science should be presented.” (Opus Paramirum).

Rumpelstiltskin - (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap - (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death (topic: essence of death and reality)
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)
... 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
[Paracelsus], 2018
[Faust 1] Faust Part 1, translated by Bayard Taylor, 1870/71
[One and All] Book of selected poems by Goethe, Princeton University Press, 1994
[Confessions] Otto F. Lachmann: Die Bekenntnisse des heiligen Augustinus, Leipzig 1888
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /