Master Builders
Their Supernatural Helpers

migratory legends of type 7065
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2022


  1. Loki and the Master Builder (From The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson.

  2. King Olaf and the Giant (Norway/Sweden).

  3. The Giant Finn and Lund's Cathedral (Sweden).

  4. Esbern Snare and the Kalundborg Church (Denmark).

  5. The Builder Zi (Denmark).

  6. Who Built the Reynir Church? (Iceland).

  7. The Devil's Church near Dembe (Poland).

  8. Why the North Tower of Saint Stephen's Cathedral Remains Unfinished (Austria).

  9. Saint Michael's Church in Steyr (Austria).

  10. Construction of Saint Lawrence's Church near Altheim (Austria).

  11. The Two Master Builders at Wasserburg (Germany).

  12. The Master Builder of the Würzburg Cathedral (Germany).

  13. Related Links.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Loki and the Master Builder

From The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (Iceland)

In the early days of the settlement of the gods, when they had established Midgard and made Valhalla, a builder came to them and offered to make a stronghold so excellent that it would be safe and secure against cliff giants and frost ogres, even if they got inside Midgard.

He stipulated that as his reward he was to have Freyja as his wife and possession of the sun and moon besides.

The Æsir had a conference, and they struck this bargain with the builder. He should receive what he asked for, if he succeeded in building the stronghold in one winter. But if, on the first day of summer, any part of it was unfinished, he was to forfeit his reward; nor was he to receive anyone's help in the work.

When they told him these terms, however, he asked them to let him have the help of his horse, which was called Svadilfari, and acting on the advice of Loki, the gods granted this to him.

He began building the stronghold the first day of winter, and by night used his horse for hauling the stones for it. The Æsir were astonished at the size of the huge boulders the horse hauled. It performed twice as much of that tremendous task as the builder.

Now there were strong witnesses to their bargain. It had been confirmed with many oaths, because the giant had not considered it safe to be among the Æsir without promise of safe-conduct, if Thor should come home. At that time he had gone into the east to fight trolls.

As winter drew to an end, the building of the stronghold had made good progress. It was so high and strong that it could not be taken. By three days before summer the work was almost finished.

The gods then sat down in their judgment seats and sought for a way out. They recalled that it had been Loki who had given the advice to marry Freyja into Giantland and also to ruin the sky and heaven by giving the sun and moon to the giants. They threatened him with an evil death if he did not devise a plan whereby the builder would forfeit his wages. Loki swore that he would do this, no matter what it might cost him.

That same evening, when the builder was driving out after stones with his stallion Svadilfari, a mare ran out of a wood up to the horse and whinnied to him. The stallion became frantic and ran into the wood after the mare. The two these horses galloped about all night, and the work was delayed.

The next day, when the builder saw that the work would not be finished, he flew into a rage. As soon as the Æsir saw for certain that it was a giant who had come there, they disregarded their oaths and called on Thor.

He came at once and raised the hammer Mjölnir aloft. Thor paid the builder his wages, and it was not the sun and the moon. He struck him such a blow that his skull shivered into fragments, and he sent him down to Niflhel.

Loki, however, had had such dealings with Svadilfari that some time later he bore a foal. It was gray and had eight legs, and amongst gods and men that horse is the best.

King Olaf and the Giant


King Olaf of Norway, engrossed in thought, wandered between mountain and valley. He wanted to build a church whose equal could not be found far and wide, but he realized that he could not do so without severely taxing his kingdom. While sadly pondering this problem he met a man of curious appearance, who asked him why he was so contemplative. Olaf revealed the problem to him, and the giant (or troll) offered to accomplish the task for him within a certain time. His reward would be the sun and the moon or Saint Olaf himself.

Olaf entered into this agreement, but then drew up plans that he thought would be impossible to execute. The church was to be so large that seven priests would be able to preach in it at one time without disturbing one another. The pillars and decorations, both inside and out, were to be of hard flint, and so forth.

Soon such a church was standing there, complete except for roof and steeple. Deeply concerned, Olaf again wandered through the mountains and valleys. Suddenly, from within a mountain, he a child crying and a giantess comforting it with the words:

Shush, shush,
tomorrow your father,
Wind and Weather,
will come home,
and he will bring you
the sun and the moon
or Saint Olaf himself!

Olaf returned home, elated with this discovery (for one can destroy an evil spirit's power with his name). Everything was finished. The steeple had just been set into place. Then Olaf called out:

Vind och Veder!
du har satt spiran sneder!

(Wind and Weather,
you have set the steeple on crooked!)

The giant fell from the top of the church with a horrible crash, and burst into many pieces of flintstone.

The Giant Finn and Lund's Cathedral


In the days long gone by there lived in Helgonabacken -- the Hills of Helgona -- near Lund, a family of giants who one day heard, with great anxiety and consternation, that a holy man had come into the country, from Saxony, to build a church to the White Christ.

While Laurentius, such was the holy man's name, was selecting his site and laying out the plans for the temple, there stood at his side, one day, none other than Finn, the giant of Helgonabacken, who thus addressed him, "Truly the White Christ is a God worthy of such a temple, and I will build it for you, if, when it is finished, you will tell me what my name is. But, mark well my condition, oh, wise man: If you cannot tell me, you must give to my little ones the two small torches -- the sun and the moon -- that travel yonder over heaven's expanse."

Now, it is so ordered in the giant world that it is of vital importance the name of the giant should be kept from mankind. Should it be revealed, the giant must die, and man is freed from all obligations that may have been imposed upon him by compact with the giant.

Laurentius could not reasonably promise so much, but anxious to have the church built, he offered, instead, his eyes, trusting to fortune to discover to him the giant's name before the completion of the church. The giant, satisfied with the bargain, entered at once upon his work, and with wonderful rapidity the church grew upward. Soon there remained nothing more to complete it than to set one stone on the tower.

The day preceding that on which it was expected this last stone would be put in place, Laurentius stood on Helgonabacken in deep melancholy. It seemed inevitable that he must lose his eyes, and that he was now taking his last look at the light of heaven and all that had made the world and life so attractive to him. Next day all would be darkness and sorrow. During these gloomy reflections he heard the cry of a child from within the hill, and the voice of the giant mother endeavoring to quiet it with a song, in which he clearly distinguished the words, "Silent, silent, little son of mine. Morning will bring your father Finn, with either moon and sun or the priest Laurentius' eyes."

Beside himself with joy, Laurentius hastened to the church. "Come down, Finn!" he cried. "The stone that now remains we ourselves can set. Come down, Finn, for we no longer need your help!"

Foaming with rage, the giant rushed from the tower to the ground, and laying hold of one of the pillars tried to pull the church down. At this instant his wife with her child joined him. She, too, grasped a pillar and would help her husband in the work of destruction, but just as the building was tottering to the point of falling, they were both turned to stones, and there they lie today, each embracing a pillar.

Esbern Snare and the Kalundborg Church


When Esbern Snare was about building a church in Kalundborg, he saw clearly that his means were not fully adequate to the task. But a troll came to him and offered his services; and Esbern Snare made an agreement with him on these conditions, that he should be able to tell the troll's name when the church was finished; or in case he could not, that he should give him his heart and his eyes.

The work now went on rapidly, and the troll set the church on stone pillars; but when all was nearly done, and there was only half a pillar wanting in the church, Esbern began to get frightened, for the name of the troll was yet unknown to him.

One day he was going about the fields all alone, and in great anxiety on account of the perilous state he was in; when, tired, and depressed, by reason of his exceeding grief and affliction, he laid him down on Ulshøj bank to rest himself a while. While he was lying there, he heard a troll-woman within the hill saying these words:

Lie still, baby mine!
Tomorrow cometh Fin,
Father thine,
And giveth thee
Esbern Snare's
eyes and heart
to play with.

When Esbern heard this, he recovered his spirits, and went back to the church. The troll was just then coming with the half pillar that was wanting from the church; but when Esbern saw him, he hailed him by his name, and called him "Fin." The troll was so enraged at this, that he went off with the half pillar through the air, and this is the reason that the church has but three pillars and a half.

The Builder Zi


A man had undertaken to build the church at Eckwadt by a certain day, but was soon sensible that it was not in his power to fulfil his contract. One night, while wandering about out of humour and pondering as to the course he should pursue, a little hill-man accosted him, and offered him his services. The builder at first listened contemptuously to the little man's magniloquent speech, but at length it was settled between them, that the dwarf should erect the church within the given space, and that the builder should by that time ascertain his name; if he failed in so doing, he should, body and soul, belong to the little man.

Rejoiced at heart the builder went home; for he thought: "If he himself will not tell me his name, I can, at all events, extract it from his work-people."

But it fell out quite contrary to his expectations; for the little man used neither workmen nor laborers, but finished everything himself with incredible rapidity; so that the builder clearly saw that all would be complete by the time agreed on.

Sadder than the first time, he was again wandering about the fields, when, in passing by a mount, he heard a crying within it, and on listening more attentively, distinguished the following words:

Vys! vaer still Baen mint,
Maaen kommer Faer Zi
Mae Christen Bloi te dae.
Hush! Be still, my child,
Tomorrow comes thy father Zi
With Christian blood for thee.

Now was the builder overjoyed, for he well knew to whom the words alluded, and hastened home. It was just the morning of the day on which the church should be ready, and the dwarf was busied on placing the last stone -- for he worked only during the night -- when the builder called to him from a distance:

God Maaen, Zi! God Maaen, Zi!
Saetter du nu den sidste Steen i?
Good morning, Zi! Good morning, Zi!
Are you now placing the last stone?

When the goblin heard himself addressed by name he was furious, and hurling away the stone that he was in the act of placing, retired within his cave. The hole which was thus left could never be filled up. In the night everything was cast out. A mason, that once endeavored to build it up, was attacked by a wasting malady. At a later period, a window was placed there, which the goblin suffered to remain.

Who Built the Reynir Church?


A certain farmer once lived at Reynir, in the district of Myrdal. He was ordered by the bishop to build a good church near his farmhouse, but had so much difficulty in getting enough timber before the hay making season, and then so much trouble in finding proper builders, that he feared he should be unable to finish the work before the winter.

One day as he was walking in his field, thinking sadly over the matter, and how he should excuse himself to the bishop for failing to obey his bidding, a strange man, whom he had never seen before, met him, and stopping him, offered him his services in building the church, declaring that he should require the services of no other workman.

Then the farmer asked him what payment he would require for such labor, and the man made the following condition -- that the farmer should either find out his name before he had finished the church, or else give him his son, who was then a little boy six years old. The farmer thought these easy terms enough, and laughing in his sleeve, gladly consented to them.

So the strange builder set to work, and worked with a will, by day and by night, speaking but little to anybody, until the church rose beneath his hands as quickly as if by magic, and the farmer plainly foresaw that it would be finished even before the hay making was over.

But by this time he had rather changed his mind about the payment he had before thought so easy, and was very far from feeling glad that the end of the church building was so near; for do what he would, ask whom he would, and search the country round as he would, and had done, he could not, for the life of him, find out the name of his quick-handed mason. Still the church went on not a whit slower for his anxiety, and autumn came, and a very little more labor would finish the building.

One day, the last day of the work, he happened to be wandering outside his field, brooding in deep grief over what now seemed to be the heavy price he would have to pay to his master builder, and threw himself down upon a grass mound which he came to. He had scarcely lain there a minute, when he heard someone singing, and listening, he found that the voice was that of a mother lulling her child, and came from inside the mound upon which he had flung himself down. This is what it said:

Soon will thy father Finnur come from Reynir,
Bringing a little playmate for thee, here.
And these words were repeated over and over again; but the farmer, who pretty soon guessed what they meant, did not wait to hear how many times the mother thought fit to sing them, or what the child seemed to think of them, but started up and ran with all speed, his heart filled with joy, to the church, in which he found the builder just nailing the last plank over the altar.

"Well done, friend Finnur!" said he, "how soon you have finished your work!"

No sooner had these words passed his lips than friend Finnur, letting the plank fall from his hand, vanished, and was never seen again.

The Devil's Church near Dembe


Many years ago in the woods near Dembe in the vicinity of Czarnków there lived a hermit who was in league with the devil and who also had sold his soul to him.

When he realized that he was soon to die, and being afraid of hell, he summoned the devil and told him that he could have his soul only if he would fulfill a few wishes. The devil agreed to this, upon which the hermit asked the devil to fell the oak forest and from the wood to build a church and a coffin for him. All this was to be completed during the bewitching hour. He was permitted to have two companions help him with the work, but no more. The devil agreed to this, and started to work. However, he did not finish within the prescribed time, for just as he was beginning to build the tower, the clock struck twelve, and he had to leave.

As a consequence of the fear he had suffered, the hermit fell ill, but he recovered again, and his health improved.

In the following week he went to the priest and told him his story. At first the priest wanted to have the church torn down that had been built by the devil, but then he decided to complete its construction.

From that time on the church was called the devil's church, but it did not stand long, for that same year it was struck by lightning and burned completely to the ground.

It is said that during the bewitching hour at the place where it stood the devil can be heard, howling with anger because the hermit's soul escaped from him. No one dares to settle there for fear that some misfortune might befall him.

Why the North Tower of Saint Stephen's Cathedral Remains Unfinished


Hans Puchsbaum, a journeyman mason in the Viennese Cathedral Construction Guild of Saint Stephen, was in love with Maria, the beautiful daughter of Master Builder Hans von Brachawitz, who since the year 1430 had been directing the construction of the south tower. The proud builder had selected the son of a wealthy burgher to marry his daughter and was thoroughly opposed to her affinity for Hans Puchsbaum.

"If you can finish the north tower at the same hour that I complete the south tower, then you may take Maria to wife," thundered hard-hearted Brachawitz to his journeyman. This condition was practically impossible. No one would be able to complete such a construction project in so short a time. The hopes and dreams of poor Puchsbaum disappeared. In despair he stood there and murmured to himself: "Only the devil could complete such a masterpiece. I shall leave this city, and Maria will belong to another man."

He had scarcely spoken these words when the Evil One appeared before him. "I will help you build the tower, but during the entire construction time you may not utter the name of God nor that of any of any of His saints, otherwise your soul will belong to me," was the offer made to him by the Spirit of Hell.

Plagued with a bad conscience, Hans asked himself if he should build a house of God with the help of Satan. But his love of Maria conquered all doubts, and he entered into the pact with the devil.

The townspeople of Vienna watched in amazement as the north tower scaffolding grew upward and the construction advanced rapidly. Puchsbaum himself was the most industrious of all the workers. Day and night he mixed mortar and set stones into place. The tower, growing ever higher, was decorated by the most glorious stone figures. Puchsbaum adhered rigorously to the conditions set by the devil, and it appeared less and less likely that the builder would have to surrender his soul.

Then the Evil One resorted to trickery. Assuming Maria's shape, he walked across Saint Stephen's Square with his head bowed. Hans Puchsbaum, who was standing high above on the scaffolding, recognized Maria. Forgetting his oath, he called out her name. Immediately the heavy beams broke apart and Puchsbaum fell to the ground. The tower remained unfinished. No one dared continue with the devil's work.

Saint Michael's Church in Steyr


It is said that the devil built Saint Michael's Church in Steyr. After finishing the building he left the church through a hole. The person relating this story assures us that the hole still can be seen.

Another person reports the following account: Some distance from Steyr is the devil's "hoarding place," where he hoards money. With an oath a priest forced the devil to deliver all this money gradually into Saint Michael's Church. After arriving with the last load, the devil departed through the hole behind the alter.

Construction of Saint Lawrence's Church near Altheim


Saint Lawrence's Church near Altheim was built under the following circumstances:

The master builder made a pact with the devil, that if the latter would help with the construction, upon the church's successful completion the devil would receive the soul of the master builder and also that of a second person.

When the church was completed, and the cross was about to be installed, the carpenter, who had climbed onto the tower, found two holes. He shouted down to the master builder: which of the two holes he should put the cross into. The master builder answered: "It's finished!" An in that instant he fell down dead.

With that the carpenter fell from the tower, breaking his neck.

And a mass of toads crept out of the dead master's mouth.

The Two Master Builders at Wasserburg


The Wasserburg town hall was built more than 600 years ago. A legend is connected to the history of this building.

At Wasserburg they were building a church and a town hall at the same time. Thus they engaged many masons and construction workers, and instructed the masters to not delay.

Two diligent stonemasons, named Hans and Stephan, took charge of the work. The older one, Hans, supervised the construction of the church; the younger one, Stephen, the town hall. Both were experienced in the art of building, having participated together in the construction of many a marvelous structure, also in southern Europe. They proceeded once again together with the plans, extending to one another the hand of true friendship and swearing that they would help each other like good brothers, without hate and without envy.

Because every good work should be rewarded, if it is to advance and succeed, the man who finished his project first was promised a reward, provided that the work was worthy and without blemish.

Do you want to know what kind of reward it was to be? A very unusual reward, neither of gold and silver, nor a medal of honor: It was the mayor's beautiful daughter.

Both stonemasons had cast their eyes on the girl at the same time, and this was no secret to her father. Because both were skilled and upright people, the mayor did not care if his daughter would take the one or the other as a bridegroom. Thus he promised her to the one who would first complete his building. However, the bride-to-be was not consulted in this matter. In her heart she had already chosen Stephen, the younger man.

As luck would have it, Stephan completed his building first. The town hall was finished, but the church tower's steeple was still missing. The competition was over. Stephan was to take home the mayor's wealthy and beautiful daughter as his bride.

This was a difficult test of friendship. Hans accepted his fate without envy and complaint, devoting himself to his friend as before. But Stephan could not see it the same way. He did not feel right surrounded by good fortune while his friend was unhappy. Thus he walked about sadly and despondent, thinking to himself how he might be freed of his misery.

One day he disappeared. In his room, instead of himself, there was a stone statue of him and a written message, in which he extended his final greetings to his friend and to his bride-to-be. He revealed to them his decision to join a distant monastery.

The legend does not tell us if Hans took home the abandoned bride. However, the friend appears to have lost all joy in his work, because the church tower's steeple is missing even today.

The statue of loyal Stephen is still preserved in the town hall of Wasserburg.

The Master Builder of the Würzburg Cathedral


Like so many other master builders , the master builder of the Würzburg Cathedral completed his temple contruction with the help of the devil.

In order to eternalize himself, and in an act of proud arrogance, he sculpted himself and his wife in bed on the ceiling of the right aisle of the cathedral. After completing this work he sprained his foot while climbing down. He cursed his sculpture, and for this reason the devil carried him away.

The depiction the the master builder next to his wife in their marriage bed is still there, but it can be seen only on Sundays and holidays at half past ten in the morning when the sun illuminates the picture in the corner.

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Revised November 30, 2022.