In the last segment we looked more at the historical evolution of the Devil through early Christianity, medieval Europe, and into the Enlightenment. In Part II we’re going to take a look at the more folkloric interpretations of the Devil, which are often less characterized by a powerful and terrifying lord of darkness and more about human beings dealing with temptation and trickery, or their own internal struggles surrounding morality.
In Part I we talked about the idea of people making pacts with the Devil, and the story of Dr. Faustus… and this is a very popular theme in folklore. We are going to look at another example of a tale involving a pact with the devil. This one comes from colonial American folklore and its called “The Devil and Tom Walker.”
And just to let you know there are some pretty racist elements here that link Native American religion with Devil worship. Obviously that is ludicrous, but its very representative of a lot of early colonial American folklore and I think its important to illustrate just how pervasive the idea was that any non-Christian religion, and particularly any sort of polytheistic or animist religion, was inherently conflated with Devil worship, and we see that belief reflected in a lot of these even sort of seemingly benign folktales.
That being said, this story, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” begins in Boston, Massachusetts… more, specifically in a swampy area surrounding a deep inlet several miles in from Charles Bay. On one side of this inlet is a grove of trees, and on the other side is a rocky cliff which drops abruptly into the water, atop which grow massive old oak trees. Somewhere under one of these old oaks, according to legend, was a treasure buried by the pirate William Kidd.
Kidd, however, was never able to come back for the treasure because after burying it and returning to England he was captured and executed for piracy. So, the treasure just sat there.
Years later, in the nearby town, lived a man named Tom Walker who was an incorrigible miser. Perhaps the only person more miserly than Tom was his wife, and the two of them were notorious for bickering vehemently over what should have been their shared property and hiding things from one another. Their house was dark and cold because they were too stingy expend the wood to light a fire. Their poor horse was nearly starved, and in general they were regarded as most unpleasant people who everyone generally avoided.
One day, coming back from town, Tom decided to take a short-cut through the old oak grove along the inlet. As is often the case with short-cuts, the route ended up being quite the opposite, and he wandered through murky swampland for many hours, startled more than once by the screeching of birds or croaking of toads. Eventually he came to an old Indian fort, where, naturally, the Indians had practiced human sacrifice and devil-worship, because of course that’s what Indians did. Nothing was left there now except for some collapsing structures, upon which Tom sat himself down to for a rest. His foot hit upon something hard, and when he unearthed it, he found the skull of an Indian with a tomahawk embedded in the forehead. He kicked the skull away.
At once, he heard a voice saying, “Leave that skull alone.”
Suddenly Tom saw a large man appear, sitting on a tree stump across from him, blackened with soot and ash, sporting a large axe over his shoulder and dressed, of course, in “Indian garb.” The man asked Tom what he was doing on his grounds?
“Your grounds?” said Tom, “pshaw! These grounds belong to Deacon Peabody!”
“Ha!” said the stranger, “Deacon Peabody be damned!” He told Tom to look and pointed to one of the old trees, which had Deacon Peabody’s name carved into the bark. The tree was chopped almost all the way down. Tom looked around and saw that all of the trees in the area had the names of people from the town carved into them and were varying degree’s of chopped. He saw one recently felled tree inscribed with the name of a man who just died.
After some more conversing, Tom establishes that this man is, indeed, the Devil, whom he refers to as Old Scratch. Old Scratch accompanies Tom for the remainder of his walk, enlightening him as to the existence of Kidd’s pirate treasure, which, of course, he knows the whereabouts of and would be willing to show Tom for a small price.
Tom, however, was not one to make any sort of bargain half-cocked. He says he’ll think about it and goes home. Despite the bad relationship with his wife, Tom can’t keep a secret this big and he simply has to tell someone. So, he tells his wife. The wife’s greed is awakened and she urges him to take the deal.
As much as Tom, himself, may have been considering selling his soul to the Devil, now that his wife wanted it so badly he was completely determined not to go through with it pretty much just to spite her.
So, the wife decided to take matters into her own hands and headed off into the woods towards to old Indian fort. A day and then a night elapsed and she did not return.
Tom got uneasy, not so much for her safety but because she had taken the silver teapot and every other object of value from the house along with her into the woods. He went to look for her, and, of course his property. He wandered the woods for a long time until finally his attention was drawn by a murder of crows cawing in the branches of an old tree. At the base of the tree he recognized his wife’s apron, hanging in a bundle in the branches. His wife was nowhere to be seen, but he was happy to at least be able to get his property back.
Upon climbing the tree and opening the bundle, however, he was shocked to see only a heart and a liver inside… presumably belonging to his wife. It was then that Tom noticed the footprints of cloven feet around the base of the tree.
While he mourned the loss of his property, Tom was actually quite relieved by the loss of his wife, and he thought that Old Scratch had done him a favor by offing her. He was now more determined to do business with him.
But, now the Devil proved quite elusive. The Devil bided his time, waiting for Tom’s desperation to grow until he would agree to anything in order to get his hands on the treasure. Finally, at long last, the Devil appeared.
They haggled for awhile over the terms of the deal. Naturally, Tom’s soul was part of the arrangement. But, beyond that, the Devil required that Tom use the treasure to do the Devil’s work. In short, he wanted Tom to become a money lender and extort the poor with high interest rates.
“Done,” said Tom.
A few days later and Tom was sitting behind a big desk in a new office, lending money left and right. His reputation grew and people were come from far and wide to borrow from Tom. The economy was at a low point, and people were desperate, and Tom made great profits by taking advantage of these circumstances. He built himself a mansion, but mostly for show, because at heart he was still a miser and he actually let the majority of the rooms unfurnished.
As he grew older, however, Tom began to regret his deal with the Devil. He was determined to cheat the Devil out of their arrangement, and thus he suddenly became exceedingly religious. He carried a Bible with him everywhere in his pocket and kept another on his desk in the office, which he read regularly.
One hot summer afternoon in the office, Tom was just about to finalize the foreclosure of a mortgage, which would bring ruin upon a poor land speculator. The man begged Tom for a few more days, but Tom refused. “You have made so much money off of me,” protested the speculator.
Losing his patience, Tom snapped, “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!”
Just then, there were three loud knocks at the door. When Tom answered the door, he saw the large soot-covered man standing beside a black horse. “Its time,” said the devil.
Tom ran for his Bible in the office, but it was too late. The devil whisked him up onto the horse and have it a whack, and the horse took off running with Tom into a huge thunderstorm that had suddenly gathered. When the other people in the office glanced back from the site of Tom vanishing into the darkness, the devil had vanished.
When the people who had been appointed to deal with Tom’s belongings went to his house, they found all of his chests of money filled with wood shavings, all of his bonds and mortgages were burnt to ashes, and in his barn lay only the skeletons of his horses. The next day, in fact, his great mansion caught fire and burnt to the ground.
And such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill-gotten wealth.
So, in that story, as in the story of Dr. Faustus, the Devil ended up getting the best of Tom Walker. Sometimes, however, we find stories where the human character ends up outsmarting or tricking the Devil. In Part 1 we talked about how, towards the end of the 17th century, with the rise of early modern science and secular thought, the Devil was beginning to lose some of his power of the minds of men. And we saw a rise in this motif of everyday people outwitting the Devil in lots and lots of folklore.
One very famous story of this ilk is the story of The Devil’s Bridge. There are many variants of this story found throughout Europe, in particular, and in other places as well. The one we’ll be looking at today comes from Wales.
In this version, there is an old woman who awakens one morning to discover that somehow her cow has ended up on the other side of a steep ravine. She has no idea how it got there, and no idea idea how to get it back.
“If only a bridge would appear,” she says to herself, “then I could go get my cow!”
Out of nowhere, a little man appears. He tells her that he will build a bridge for her, but, of course he will need something in return. “And what might that be?” asks the woman.
“Only the first living thing to cross the bridge,” declares the little man.
The old woman realizes exactly who she’s dealing with here- clearly its the Devil- and, after some thought, she agrees to the bargain. Within seconds, a sturdy bridge appears.
Not missing a beat, the old woman tosses a crust of bread out on to the bridge, and her little black dog scampers after it. “Very well,” she says to the little man, “the dog is yours, sir.”
Furiously angry, the little man disappears in a puff of smoke and the wise old woman is able to retrieve her cow, none the worse for wear.
I’ve read multiple versions of this story and the characters and reasons for wanting the bridge change, but the dog is almost always described as a little back cur… and we never learn what becomes of it… I actually have a little black dog, so I’m always a bit horrified when I picture this story and I’m left wondering what happens to the dog. For our purposes, lets assume that the Devil is disinterested and it remains unscathed.
One popular tale crops up again and again in throughout North America in areas the share a Catholic heritage in terms of colonization. I’ve read versions of it in French-Canadian folklore and in Chicano folklore from parts of northern Mexico, South Texas, the Southwestern US…… It is the tale of the Devil at a Dance, or Dancing with the Devil.
Like the story of the Devil’s Bridge, this story, too, has ton and tons of variants, but the overall theme remains generally consistent, even in some cases having been adapted to contemporary situations, like nightclubs, where it takes on more of an urban legend form. Typically what happens is this:
The devil makes an appearance at a dance hall, taking the form of a dashingly handsome man dressed to the nines in a nice suit, usually black, his hair combed back, charming smile, emanating charisma. And this image of the devil as a gentleman in a nice suit is very common in devil folklore all over parts of Europe and North America. Naturally, in this story, he is a fantastic dancer, as well, tearing up on the floor with his moves.
A pretty young girl who has typically snuck out of the house against her parents explicit orders, to attend the dance, is quite taken by this handsome stranger, and of course when he extends his hand, she takes it, and steps out onto to the dance floor.
They twist and twirl around, dancing long into the night, until, at a particularly intimate moment, when he’s holding her close, she glances down and notices that he is not wearing shoes… In fact, his feet are not feet at all, but rather the hooves of a goat, or sometimes chicken feet! She gasps and recoils in horror. As soon as he is discovered, the devil typically disappears into thin air or a puff of smoke, leaving a smell of burnt hair or sulfur behind him.
The girl either goes up in smoke along with him, dies, faints, or sometimes, if she’s lucky, emerges with only a burn mark on her shoulder in the shape of a man’s hand.
If you listened to Part I of Satan through the Ages then you probably already know that in Europe, throughout the middle ages and in some areas really even up into the 19th century, there was an overwhelming tendency to attribute pretty much anything weird to the Devil- or demons working on behalf of the devil… the Devil was to be found even in fairly mundane situations…
One such example comes from a woodcut pamphlet printed in England in 1678, called The Mowing Devil: Or, Strange news out of Hartfordshire… and I have to give a shout out to Dee Dee Chaney from #FolkloreThursday to bringing this piece of lore to my attention… Basically, according to this woodcut, a farmer in Hertfordshire was so appalled by the price that a laborer demanded to mow his fields that the farmer declared he would rather the Devil himself mow it than pay that much… that night, the farmer witnessed his field of oats go up in flames…
The next morning, however, the field appeared perfectly mowed… so perfectly, in fact, according to the pamphlet “that no mortal man was able to do the like”. And so, the only viable conclusion was that the Devil had heard the man and materialized in the night to mow his field… and we get the mowing Devil. And there is a great little depiction of this incident with the Devil out I the field with a scythe cutting the crop.
And actually, because of the pattern of the mowing, this incident has been used by crop circle enthusiasts as alleged evidence of one of the first crop circles… although some crop circle researchers say that in this case the stalks in the field were actually cut, whereas with crop circles they are merely bent, and thus this does not set a historical precedent. Whatever the case, clearly a most mysterious incident.
In episode one we talked about the idea of demonic possession. Now, possession is a very broad concept and it happens in lots of different cultures for various reasons, and certainly its not always viewed as demonic. Amongst the Abrahamic faiths, however, it is pretty much always bad to get possessed… and its pretty much always some sort of demon doing the possessing. In Judaism, there is the dybbuk, which is ostensibly an evil spirit that can possess people and needs to be exorcised by a rabbi… something that it is interesting in Jewish exorcisms it that they are focused not only on expelling the demon and healing the possessed person, but also in many cases to heal the troubled spirit doing the possessing, the dybbuk.
In Christian exorcisms, the objective is just to cast the demon out. We’re going to look at one fairly famous case of an alleged possession by the devil. This took place near Boston, Massachusetts from late 1671- the beginning of 1672, and it was documented by a Puritan preacher named Samuel Willard. In fact, it was a servant girl in Willard’s own home who was the victim. Her name was Elizabeth Knapp and she was around 16 years old when this incident occurred.
Basically, it started out with her experience sudden weird pains in various parts of her body. She would cry out and say that it felt like she was being strangled. Then she began to have hallucinations, such as seeing a man floating around her bed. And she began to have fits- acting hysterically and at times convulsing on the ground. Apparently while she was having these fits she would yell out words and phrases like, “Money, money, sin, misery, misery.”
After a few days of this, Elizabeth confessed to Willard that she had met with the Devil. In fact, she had been meeting with him for the past three years, and that the devil had promised her money and power and freedom- everything she could ever want. She claimed that the Devil had shown her a book of blood covenants, signed by many other women.
More fits ensued, including a particularly violent one that lasted for 48 hours straight and left her in a catatonic state for about a week. After that she made more confessions, including sleeping with the Devil and making a pact with him. During this time, she began to speak in tongues. According to Willard her throat would swell up like a balloon and she would speak in a voice that was clearly not her own, sometimes sounding more like an animal. Willard believed that this was the Devil speaking through her body.
After about 2 months of this, Willard stopped documenting the experience and determined to leave the course of action up to men more knowledgeable than himself. What became of Elizabeth Knapp remains a mystery.
But her case bears a striking similarity to many of the incidents that would occur 20 years later surrounding the Salem witch trials, and in fact Samuel Willard went on to preach in Salem during the time of the witch trials and actually used his authority to discredit evidence against several women who had been accused of witchcraft, believing that the trials should be held a “fair and legal way.” They weren’t, of course, but its interesting to hear a Puritan preacher who allegedly had a firsthand experience with demonic possession say that…
I’ve actually been getting pretty into reading about the witch trials both in Europe and in the early days of the US, and I may put together an episode on that stuff in the future. But for now I’ll leave you with that story, which concludes part II of Satan through the Ages.