The Sorcerer's Apprentice

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 325*
and migratory legends of Christiansen type 3020
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2008


  1. Eucrates and Pancrates, the Egyptian Miracle Worker (Assyria, Lucian).

  2. Link to Goethe's ballad "Der Zauberlehrling." The original German text with English translations.

  3. Magic Book (Germany).

  4. The Book of Magic (Russia).

  5. The Master and His Pupil (England).

  6. The Schoolmaster at Bury (England).

  7. The Farmer's Wife of Deloraine (Scotland).

  8. Mass John Scott (Scotland).

  9. The Magic Whistle (Iceland).

  10. Links to related sites.

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

Eucrates and Pancrates, the Egyptian Miracle Worker


"I will tell you," [said Eucrates,] "another incident derived from my own experience, not from hearsay. Perhaps even you, Tychiades, when you have heard it, may be convinced of the truth of the story."

When I was living in Egypt during my youth (my father had sent me traveling for the purpose of completing my education), I took it into my head to sail up to Koptos and go from there to the statue of Memnon in order to hear it sound that marvelous salutation to the rising sun. Well, what I heard from it was not a meaningless voice, as in the general experience of common people; Memnon himself actually opened his mouth and delivered me an oracle in seven verses, and if it were not too much of a digression, I would have repeated the very verses for you. But on the voyage up, there chanced to be sailing with us a man from Memphis, one of the scribes of the temple, wonderfully learned, familiar with all the culture of the Egyptians. He was said to have lived underground for twenty-three years in their sanctuaries, learning magic from Isis.

"You mean Pancrates," said Arignotus, "my own teacher, a holy man, clean shaven, in white linen, always deep in thought, speaking imperfect Greek, tall, flat-nosed, with protruding lips and thinnish legs."

That self-same Pancrates, and at first I did not know who he was, but when I saw him working all sorts of wonders whenever we anchored the boat, particularly riding on crocodiles and swimming in company with the beasts, while they fawned and wagged their tails, I recognized that he was a holy man, and by degrees, through my friendly behavior, I became his companion and associate, so that he shared all his secret knowledge with me.

At last he persuaded me to leave all my servants behind in Memphis and to go with him quite alone, for we should not lack people to wait upon us; and thereafter we got on in that way. But whenever we came to a stopping place, the man would take either the bar of the door or the broom or even the pestle, put clothes upon it, say a certain spell over it, and make it walk, appearing to everyone else to be a man. It would go off and draw water and buy provisions and prepare meals and in every way deftly serve and wait upon us. Then, when he was through with its services, he would again make the broom a broom or the pestle a pestle by saying another spell over it.

Though I was very keen to learn this from him, I could not do so, for he was jealous, although most ready to oblige in everything else. But one day I secretly overheard the spell -- it was just three syllables -- by taking my stand in a dark place. He went off to the square after telling the pestle what it had to do, and on the next day, while he was transacting some business in the square, I took the pestle, dressed it up in the same way, said the syllables over it, and told it to carry water.

When it had filled and brought in the jar, I said, "Stop! Don't carry any more water. Be a pestle again!"

But it would not obey me now; it kept straight on carrying until it filled the house with water for us by pouring it in! At my wit's end over the thing, for I feared that Pancrates might come back and be angry, as was indeed the case, I took an axe and cut the pestle in two; but each part took a jar and began to carry water, with the result that instead of one servant I had now two.

Meanwhile Pancrates appeared on the scene, and comprehending what had happened, turned them into wood again, just as they were before the spell, and then for his own part left me to my own devices without warning, taking himself off out of sight somewhere.

"Then you still know how to turn the pestle into a man?" said Deinomachus.

"Yes," said he. "Only half way, however, for I cannot bring it back to its original form if it once becomes a water carrier, but we shall be obliged to let the house be flooded with the water that is poured in!"

"Will you never stop telling such buncombe, old men as you are? " said I. " If you will not, at least for the sake of these lads put your amazing and fearful tales off to some other time, so that they may not be filled up with terrors and strange figments before we realise it. You ought to be easy with them and not accustom them to hear things like this which will abide with them and annoy them their lives long and will make them afraid of every sound by filling them with all sorts of superstition."

Magic Book


A pastor at Krailsheim had old large books secured with chains to the walls and ceilings of a vaulted room. One time a servant girl was alone in this room, and out of curiosity she opened one of the books and read aloud a passage from it. Suddenly the entire room was crawling with mice, causing the servant girl to cry for help.

At her cry the pastor the pastor came to her, and she hurriedly told him what had happened. He then read the passage from end to beginning, upon which the mice all disappeared.

The Book of Magic


A soldier was quartered in a certain town. He had taken to study the black art, and had got possession of books which dealt therewith. One day, during his absence from his quarters, one of his comrades came to see him. Not finding him at home, the visitor took up one of the soldier's books, and for want of other occupation began to read it. It was in the evening, and he read by the light of a lamp. The book was full of names and nothing else.

He had read about half of the names when he raised his head, and looking around him, saw that the room was full of diabolical looking beings. The soldier was struck with terror, and not knowing what to do, began again to read the book. After reading for some little time, he again looked round him; the number of spirits had increased. Again he read, and having finished the book, looked again around him. By this time the number of demons had so much increased that there was barely space for them in the room. They sat upon each other's shoulders, and pressed continually forward round the reader. The soldier saw that the situation was serious; he shut the book, closed his eyes, and anxiously awaited his comrade.

The spirits pressed closer and closer upon him, crying, "Give us work to do -- quick!"

The soldier reflected awhile, and then said, "Fill up the cisterns of all the baths in the town with water brought thither in a sieve."

The demons flew away. In two minutes they returned and said, "It is done! Give us some more work to do -- quick!"

" Pull the Voivode's [governor's] house down, brick by brick -- but take care you do not touch or disturb the inmates; then build it up again as it was before."

The goblins disappeared, but in two minutes returned. "It is done!" they cried. "Give us more work -- quick!"

"Go," said the soldier," and count the grains of sand that lie at the bottom of the Volga, the number of drops of water that are in the river, and of the fish that swim in it, from its source to its mouth."

The spirits flew away; but in another minute they returned, having executed their task. Thus, before the soldier could think of some new labor to be done, the old one was completed, and the demons were again at his side demanding more work. When he began to think what he should give them, they pressed round him, and threatened him with instant death if he did not give them something to do. The soldier was becoming exhausted, and there was yet no sign of his comrade's return. What course should he take? How deliver himself from the evil spirits?

The soldier thought to himself, "While I was reading the book, not one of the demons came near me. Let me try to read it again; perhaps that will keep them off."

Again he began to read the book of magic, but he soon observed that as he read, the number of phantoms increased, so that soon such a host of the spirit world surrounded him that the very lamp was scarcely visible. When the soldier hesitated at a word, or paused to rest himself, the goblins became more restless and violent, demanding, "Give us work to do! Give us work!"

The soldier was almost worn out, and unhappily knew not how to help himself.

Suddenly a thought occurred to him, "The spirits appeared when I read the book from the beginning; let me now read it from the end, perhaps this well send them way."

He turned the book round and began to read it from the end. After reading for some time he observed that the number of spirits decreased; the lamp began again to burn brightly, and there was an empty space around him.

The soldier was delighted, and continued his reading. He read and read until he had read them all away. And thus he saved himself from the demons. His comrade came in soon afterwards. The soldier told him what had happened.

"It is fortunate for you," said his comrade, "that you began to read the book backwards in time. Had you not thus read them away by midnight they would have devoured you."

The Master and His Pupil


There was once a very learned man in the north country who knew all the languages under the sun, and who was acquainted with all the mysteries of creation. He had one big book bound in black calf and clasped with iron, and with iron corners, and chained to a table which was made fast to the floor; and when he read out of this book, he unlocked it with an iron key, and none but he read from it, for it contained all the secrets of the spiritual world. It told how many angels there were in heaven, and now they marched in their ranks, and sang in their quires, and what were their several functions, and what was the name of each great angel of might. And it told of the devils of hell, how many of them there were, and what were their several powers, and their labors, and their names, and how they might be summoned, and how tasks might be imposed on them, and how they might be chained to be as slaves to man.

Now the master had a pupil who was but a foolish lad, and he acted as servant to the great master, but never was he suffered to look into the black book, hardly to enter the private room. One day the master was out, and then the lad, impelled by curiosity, hurried to the chamber where his master kept his wondrous apparatus for changing copper into gold, and lead into silver, and where was his mirror in which he could see all that was passing in the world, and where was the shell which when held to the ear whispered all the words that were being spoken by anyone the master desired to know about. The lad tried in vain with the crucibles to turn copper and lead into gold and silver -- he looked long and vainly into the mirror; smoke and clouds fleeted over it, but he saw nothing plain, and the shell to his ear produced only indistinct mutterings, like the breaking of distant seas on an unknown shore.

"I can do nothing," he said, "as I know not the right words to utter, and they are locked up in yon book."

He looked round, and, see! the book was unfastened; the master had forgotten to lock it before he went out. The boy rushed to it, and unclosed the volume. It was written with red and black ink, and much therein he could not understand; but he put his finger on a line, and spelled it through.

At once the room was darkened, and the house trembled; a clap of thunder rolled through the passage of the old mansion, and there stood before the terrified youth a horrible form, breathing fire, and with eyes like burning lamps. It was the Evil One, Beelzebub, whom he had called up to serve him.

"Set me a task!" said a voice, like the roaring of an iron furnace.

The boy only trembled, and his hair stood up.

"Set me a task, or I shall strangle thee!"

But the lad could not speak. Then the evil spirit stepped towards him, and putting forth his hands touched his throat. The fingers burned his flesh. "Set me a task."

"Water yon flower," cried the boy in despair, pointing to a geranium which stood in a pot on the floor.

Instantly the spirit left the room, but in another instant he returned with a barrel on his back, and poured its contents over the flower; and again and again he went and came, and poured more and more water, till the floor of the room was ankle-deep.

"Enough, enough!" gasped the lad; but the Evil One heeded him not; the lad knew not the words by which to dismiss him, and still he fetched water.

It rose to the boy's knees, and still more water was poured. It mounted to his waist, and Beelzebub ceased not bringing barrels full. It rose to his armpits, and he scrambled to the tabletop. And now the water stood up to the window and washed against the glass, and swirled around his feet on the table. It still rose; it reached his breast. In vain he cried; the evil spirit would not be dismissed, and to this day he would have been pouring water, and would have drowned all Yorkshire, had not the master remembered on his journey that he had not locked his book, and had therefore returned, and at the moment when the water was bubbling about the pupil's chin, spoken the words which cast Beelzebub back into his fiery home.

The Schoolmaster at Bury


Old Mr. Hodgson, master of the grammar school at Bury, was enjoying his midday meal, when his wooden trencher began to turn round, and he was immediately convinced that something very wrong was going on in the schoolhouse. So he hastened thither, and found the boys in great consternation, for by means of saying the Lord's Prayer backwards they had raised the devil, and they could not lay him again.

Mr. Hodgson knew that the only way to get rid of him would be to give him a task which he could not perform, and that, if in three trials they could not hit upon such a task, the case would be hopeless.

Mr. Hodgson first desired him to count the blades of grass in the castle croft. This task the devil performed directly. He was next ordered to count the grains of sand on the school brow. This gave him no more trouble than the former feat. Only one chance was left. A happy thought occurred to Mr. Hodgson. He commanded the devil to count the letters in the large Bible in the parish church. In an instant the devil descended to the lower regions through the floor of the school, leaving a great crack on the hearthstone where he passed through, to attest the truth of this story to future generations.

The Farmer's Wife of Deloraine


Witchcraft is not named in the next story, but we can scarcely be wrong in assuming it to be the agent at work in it. We must premise that it was, perhaps still is, customary in the Lowlands of Scotland, as in other secluded districts, for tailors to leave their workshops and go into the farmhouses of the neighborhood to work by the day.

The farmer's wife of Deloraine thus engaged a tailor with his workmen and apprentices for the day, begging them to come in good time in the morning. They did so, and partook of the family breakfast of porridge and milk. During the meal, one of the apprentices observed that the milk jug was almost empty, on which the mistress slipped out of the back door with a basin in her hand to get a fresh supply.

The lad's curiosity was roused, for he had heard there was no more milk in the house; so he crept after her, hid himself behind the door, and saw her turn a pin in the wall, on which a stream of pure milk flowed into the basin. She twirled the pin, and the milk stopped. Coming back, she presented the tailors with the bowl of milk, and they gladly washed down the rest of their porridge with it.

About noon, while our tailors were busily engaged with the gudeman's wardrobe, one of them complained of thirst, and wished for a bowl of milk like the morning's.

"Is that a'?" said the apprentice; "ye'se get that."

The mistress was out of the way, so he left his work, found his way to the spot he had marked in the morning, twirled the pin, and quickly filled a basin. But, alas! he could not then stay the stream. Twist the pin as he would, the milk still continued to flow. He called the other lads, and implored them to come and help him; but they could only bring such tubs and buckets as they found in the kitchen, and these were soon filled.

When the confusion was at its height, the mistress appeared among them, looking as black as thunder; while she called out, in a mocking voice, "A'ye loons! Ye hae drawn a' the milk fra every coo between the head o' Yarrow an' the foot o't. This day ne'er a coo will gie her maister a drop o' milk, though he war gawing to starve."

The tailors slunk away abashed, and from that day forward the wives of Deloraine have fed their tailors on nothing but chappit 'taties and kale.

Mass John Scott


A Mass John Scott, minister of Peebles, is reported to have been the last renowned exorciser, and to have lost his life in a contest with an obstinate spirit. This was owing to the conceited rashness of a young clergyman, who commenced the ceremony of laying the ghost before the arrival of Mass John. It is the nature, it seems, of spirits disembodied, as well as embodied, to increase in strength and presumption, in proportion to the advantages which they may gain over the opponent. The young clergyman losing courage, the horrors of the scene were increased to such a degree, that, as Mass John approached the house in which it passed, he beheld the slates and tiles flying from the roof, as if dispersed with a whirlwind. At his entry, be perceived all the wax tapers (the most essential instruments or conjuration) extinguished, except one, which already burned blue in the socket. The arrival of the experienced sage changed the scene: he brought the spirit to reason; but unfortunately, while addressing a word or advice or censure to his rash brother, he permitted the ghost to obtain the last word, a circumstance which, in all colloquies of this nature, is strictly to be guarded against. This fatal oversight occasioned his falling into a lingering disorder, of which be never recovered.

The Magic Whistle


Sæmund the Wise owned a whistle that would sommon one or more imps, and they would have to serve the person who had blown the whistle. One day a servant girl discovered the whistle, which Sæmund had hidden in his bed. Her curiousity led her to pick it up and blow it. Immediately an imp appeared and demanded a task from her.

Now ten of Sæmund's sheep had been slaughtered that day, and their fleeces were lying outside. The girl told the imp to count the hairs on all the fleeces, and that if he could do so before she finished making the bed, she would belong to him.

The imp hurried away and began his task, but the girl was even faster. He still had one fleece left to count when she had finished making the bed, so he lost the bargain.

Later Sæmund asked the girl if she had found anything in the bed. She told him everything, and he was pleased with her presence of mind.

Links to related sites

Targets open in new windows.

  1. The Black School. Migratory legends of type 3000, in which a wizard in training escapes from his satanic teacher, albeit with the loss of his shadow.

  2. Faust Legends. Stories about mortals who enter into contracts with the demonic powers.

  3. Foolish Wishes. Tales of type 750A and other stories about the foolish use of magic wishes.

  4. Goethe's ballad "Der Zauberlehrling." The original German text with English translations.

  5. Magic Books.

  6. Why the Sea Is Salty. Folktales of type 565.

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

Revised December 11, 2008.