Godfather Death

tales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 332
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2022


  1. Godfather Death (Germany).

  2. The Doctor and Death (Denmark).

  3. The Boy with the Ale Keg (Norway).

  4. Story (Ireland).

  5. The Just Man (France).

  6. The Godson of Death (France).

  7. Juan Holgado and Death (Spain).

  8. Dr. Urssenbeck, Physician of Death (Austria).

  9. Godmother Death (Moravia).

  10. The Poor Man and Death (Hungary).

  11. Godfather Death (Italy).

  12. The Just Man (Italy).

  13. Godfather Charon (Greece).

  14. Related Links.

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

Godfather Death


Once upon a time there was an old man who already had twelve children, and when the thirteenth was born he did not know where to turn for help. In desperation he went into the woods. There the Good Lord happened upon him and said to him, "I feel sorry for you, poor man. I will lift your child from his baptism and take care of him. He will be happy on earth."

The man answered, "I do not want you as a godfather. You give to the rich and let the poor starve." With that he left him standing there and continued on his way.

Soon thereafter Death happened upon him and also said to him, "I will be godfather for you and pick up your child. And if he has me as a friend, he will lack nothing. I will make a doctor of him."

The man said, "I am satisfied with that, for without distinction you take the rich as well as the poor. Tomorrow is Sunday, when the child will be baptized. Be on time."

The next day Death arrived and held the child for his baptism. After he had grown up, Death came again and took his godchild into the woods, and said to him, "Now you are to become a doctor. You must only pay attention when you are called to a sick person and see if I am standing at his head. If so, without further ado let him smell from this flask, then anoint his feet with its contents, and he soon will regain his health. But if I am standing at his feet, then he is finished, for I will soon take him. Do not attempt to begin a cure."

With that Death gave him the flask, and he became a renowned doctor. He only needed to see a patient, and he could immediately predict whether he would regain his health or die.

Once he was summoned to the king, who was suffering from a serious illness. When the doctor approached him, he saw Death standing at the king's feet, and his flask would be of no use. But it occurred to him that he might deceive Death. Thus he took hold of the king and turned him around, so that Death was now standing at his head. It succeeded, and the king regained his health.

After the doctor returned home, Death came to him, made angry and grim faces at him, and said, "If you ever again attempt to deceive me, I shall wring your neck."

Soon afterward the king's beautiful daughter took ill. No one on earth could help her. The king wept day and night, until finally he proclaimed that whoever could cure her could have her as a reward. The doctor came and saw Death standing at her feet. Astonished at her beauty, he forgot the warning, turned her around, let her smell from the healing flask, and anointed the soles of her feet with its contents.

He had scarcely returned home when Death with his terrifying face appeared before him, seized him, and carried him to an underground cavern where many thousand lights were burning.

"Look!" said Death. "These are all the living. And here is a light that will burn only a little longer, and then go out. This is your life! Take heed!"

The Doctor and Death


There was a very poor man who had to make arrangements for his child's baptism. But did not know where he was going, nor whom he might find to serve as godparents. At last he met a person who asked him where he was going.

He was looking for godparents.

"Then you can just ask me," said the stranger.

Yes, that would do, but the man wanted to know who the stranger was.

"I'm the one they call the Devil," he said.

"No, I do not want you, for you are evil. You only want to hurt people."

Then the two parted.

He went on his way again, and someone else approached him. The stranger asked him where he was going.

He was looking for godparents.

"Then you can just as well ask me as anyone else."

Of course he wanted to know who the stranger was.

He was the one they call Our Lord.

"No, I do not want you, because you make people different. You make both the poor and the rich, and you do not care."

Then he went on his way again, thinking: "I must be able to find someone who is suitable for me."

Then he met a third person, who asked him the same question, and then said: "You can just as well ask me as anyone else."

He wanted to know who this stranger was. He always had this question.

He was Death.

"You are the one I want, for you are an honest man, and no one passes you by. You take everyone with you, both poor and rich.

Death was was pleased that he had been invited, and he wanted to wish him well.

"Yes, God help me," said the Man, "but I do not know what I want."

"Well, for example, you could want to be a Doctor."

"I do not know about medicine or anything like that."

"Well, that doesn't matter. I will tell you just one thing. Now you know who I am, and when you are called to the sick and see me sitting at the head of the bed, you must not bother to treat them, for they shall die. However, if am sitted at their feet, they will revover, no matter what you give them."

So he pretended to be a doctor, and everyone came to him to be cured. He had been very poor before, but now he became wealthy. He was famous, and wherever he went there was no one like him.

Once he was called on to treat a king from a foreign land who had lain ill for many years. When he came in to the sick man, Death was seated at the head of the bed. Now he did not want the king to die, for he had long since been overcome by the lust for money and fame. So he ordered that the sick king should be turned around, and the king did indeed recover, for Death was now seated at his feet. For this service he got everything he could want, and more.

Then he returned home, and for a time lived in wealth at his own estate.

Then Death came to him once more, saying that now he should die.

He pleaded to be allowed to live a little longer.

No, that was not possible, for he had deceived Death with the king.

"May I not be allowed to read the Lord's Prayer before I die?"

Yes, for it would be a sin to deny him that.

"Then, in truth, it will be a long time before I read it."

Now he was on his feet again and could cure as usual. Everyone who came to him was cured.

However, it was wrong that he could not read the Lord's Prayer. He longed terribly to do so.

Then one day he met a little herder boy. He asked the boy if he could read something.

"Only a little," replied the boy. That was not much of an answer.

Could he read the Lord's Prayer?

He was not sure. He had known it, but now he hardly knew if he could still do so.

So the boy was supposed to read it, but he could not begin. Then the doctor took over and said: "Our father...."

The boy could not continue, so the doctor had to keep saying the prayer word for word until he came to the end. Then Death suddenly appeared to him again, and this time he had to give up his life. He now had become an old, decrepit man.

The Boy with the Ale Keg


Once upon a time there was a boy who had served a man in the northern mountains for a long time. This man was a master at ale brewing. It was so uncommonly good, the like of it was not to be found. So, when the boy was to leave his place and the man was to pay him the wages he had earned, he would take no other pay than a keg of Yule-ale. Well, he got it and set off with it, and he carried it both far and long, but the longer he carried the keg the heavier it got, and so he began to look about to see if anyone were coming with whom he might have drink, that the ale might lessen and the keg lighten. And after a long, long time, he met an old man with a big beard.

"Good day," said the man.

"Good day to you," said the boy.

"Where are you going?" asked the man.

"I'm looking for someone to drink with me, and lighten my keg," said the boy.

"Can't you drink with me as well as with anyone else?" said the man. "I have traveled both far and wide, and I am both tired and thirsty."

"Well, why shouldn't I?" said the boy. "But tell me, where are you from, and what sort of man are you?"

"I am the Lord, and come from Heaven," said the man.

"I will not drink with you," said the boy, "for you make such distinction between persons here on earth, and you divide rights so unevenly that some get so rich and some so poor. No, I will not drink with you!" And having said this he trudged off again with his keg.

When he had gone a bit farther the keg grew too heavy again. He thought he could not carry it any longer unless someone came with whom he might drink, and so lessen the ale in the keg. Yes, he met an ugly, scrawny man who came rushing along.

"Good day," said the man.

"Good day to you," said the boy.

"Where are you going?" asked the man.

"Oh, I'm looking for someone to drink with, and lighten my keg," said the boy.

"Can't you drink with me as well as with anyone else?" said the man. "I have traveled both far and wide, and I am tired and thirsty."

"Well, why not?" said the boy. "But who are you, and where do you come from?"

"Who am I? I am the Devil, and I come from Hell, that's where I come from," said the man.

"No!" said the boy. "You only torment and plague poor folk, and if there is any unhappiness astir, they always say it is your fault. I will not drink with you."

So he went far and farther than far again with his ale keg on his back, until he thought it grew so heavy there was no carrying it any farther. He began to look around again if anyone were coming with whom he could drink and lighten his keg. So after a long, long time, another man came, and he was so dried up and scrawny it was a wonder that his bones hung together.

"Good day," said the man.

"Good day to you," said the boy.

"Where are you going?" asked the man.

"Oh, I was only looking about to see if I could find someone to drink with, that my keg might be lightened a little, it is so heavy to carry."

"Can't you drink with me as well as with anyone else?" said the man.

"Yes, why not?" said the boy. "But what sort of man are you?"

"They call me Death," said the man.

"I will gladly drink with you.," said the boy. And as he said this he put down his keg and began to tap the ale into a bowl. "You are a good man, for you treat all alike, both rich and poor."

So he drank to his health, and Death drank to his health, and Death said he had never tasted such drink, and as the boy was fond of him, they drank bowl after bowl until the ale was lessened, and the keg grew light.

At last Death said, "I have never known drink which tasted better, or did me so much good as this ale that you have given me, and I scarce know what to give you in return." But after he had thought awhile, he said the keg should never get empty, however much they drank out of it, and the ale that was in it should become a healing drink, by which the boy could make the sick whole again better than any doctor. And he also said that when the boy came into a sick man's room, Death would always be there, and show himself to him, and it should be to him a sure sign if he saw Death at the foot of the bed that he could cure the sick with a draft from the keg; but if he sat by the pillow, there was no healing nor medicine, for then the sick person belonged to Death.

Well, the boy soon grew famous, and was summoned far and near, and he helped many to health again who had been given up. When he came in and saw how Death sat by a sick man's bed, he foretold either life or death, and his foretelling was never wrong. He became both a rich and powerful man, and at last he was summoned to a king's daughter far, far away in the world. She was so dangerously ill that no doctor thought he could do her any good, and so they promised him all that he might ask for if he would only save her life.

Now, when he came into the princess's room, there sat Death at her pillow; but as he sat he dozed and nodded, and while he did this she felt better.

"Now, life or death is at stake," said the doctor; "and I fear, from what I see, there is no hope."

But they said he must save her, if it cost land and realm. So he looked at Death, and while he sat there and dozed again, he made a sign to the servants to turn the bed around so quickly that Death was left sitting at the foot, and at the very moment they turned the bed, the doctor gave her the draft, and her life was spared.

"Now you have cheated me," said Death, "and we are quits."

"I was forced to do it," said the doctor, "unless I wished to lose land and realm."

"That shall not help you much," said Death. "Your time is up, for now you belong to me."

"Well," said the boy, "what must be must be. But you'll let me have time to read the Lord's Prayer first?"

Yes, he might have leave to do that. But he took very good care not to read the Lord's Prayer. He read everything else, but the Lord's Prayer never crossed his lips, and at last he thought he had cheated Death for good and all.

But when Death thought he had really waited too long, he went to the boy's house one night, and hung up a large tablet with the Lord's Prayer painted on it over against his bed. So when the boy woke in the morning he began to read the tablet, and did not quite see what he was doing until he came to Amen. But then it was just too late, and Death had him.


Ireland (County Mayo)

Once upon a time, there lived a man and his wife who had only one son. When the son was born, his father said he would have to get an honest man to stand for the child. He set out on his journey early in the morning. When he went some distance he met a man who asked him where was he going.

"I am going to get an honest man to stand for my child," said he.

"Will I do?" said the man.

"Who are you?" he inquired.

"I am God," said the man.

"Well you won't do, because you are too good to some people, and bad to others."

So he went another bit of the way, and he met another man, who asked him where was he going.

"I am going in search of an honest man to stand for my child," he said.

"Maybe I'd do," said the man.

"Who are you," he said.

"I am the devil," the man said.

"God himself is fairer than you," he said and away he went. He met another man who asked him where was he going.

"I am going in search of an honest man to stand for my child, who is after being born," he said.

"Will I do?" asked the man.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I am Death," he said.

"Well you are a fair man anyway because you bring the poor along with you as well as the rich."

He said he would stand for the child, but that when the child would come to a certain age he would have to go to College in order to be a doctor.

When he came to be a doctor he met Death one day. He said to the doctor that when ever he went attending the sick if he saw him at the head of the person's bed they would not be cured, but if he saw him at the foot of the bed the person would be cured.

One day he heard of a great princess being sick and there was a great reward for what ever doctor would cure her. The doctor went to the palace of the princess and saw her there ready to die. Death was at her head, so he saw that she could not be cured.

Then he changed her in the bed, by putting her feet where her head was and then she was cured. He got his money, but he met Death at the gate. Death said to him that he would have to die instead of the princess. The doctor said he would die, but to give him time to say a few certain prayers, so death said he would.

"Alright," he said, "you will wait a long time before I will say them."

It happened one night that the young doctor was going along the road when he found an old man lying on the side of the road moaning. He went to the old man and asked him what was wrong with him. The old man told him that he had some certain prayers to say, and he was not able to say them, so the young doctor took pity on him and said them for him.

The prayers that he said were the same ones that Death gave him to say, so as soon as he had the last of them said, the old man stood up and said to the young doctor, "I am Death, so now you must die."

Collector: Beatrice Casey, female.

Informant: Mattie Casey, male, age 52.

The Just Man

France (Lower Brittany)

There was once a poor man whose wife had just given birth to a son.

He wanted his child to have a just man as godfather, and he set out to find him.

As he was walking, his stick in his hand, he first met a stranger, who looked like an honest man, and who asked him: "Where are you going, my good man?"

-- I'm looking for a godfather for my new son.

-- Well! Do you want me? I am at your disposal, if you please.

-- Yes, but... I want a just man.

-- Well! you could not have timed better; I am your man.

-- So who are you?"

-- I am the good Lord.

-- You just? Lord God!... No! No! Everywhere on earth I hear people complaining about you.

-- Why ist that, if you please?

-- Why? For a thousand and a thousand different reasons.... Some complain because you sent them to this world weak, disabled, or sickly, while others are strong and full of health, but are not more deserving than the sickly ones. Furthermore, there are very honest people, I know more than one, who work like dogs continually, but you leave them poor and miserable, while their wasteful, heartless, good-for-nothing neighbors.... No, hold on, you won't be my son's godfather. Goodbye!...

And the fellow went on his way, grumbling.

A little further on he met a tall old man with a long white beard.

"Where are you going, my good man?" asked the old man.

-- Looking for a godfather for my newborn son.

-- I'm quite willing to act as his godfather, if you like. Would that suit you?

-- Yes, but I must tell you first that I want my son's godfather to be a just man.

-- A just man? Well I am, I think.

-- So who are you?

-- Saint Peter.

-- The gatekeeper of paradise, the one who holds the keys?

-- Yes, that very one.

-- Well! But you're not just either.

-- "I am not just? Me!" replied Saint Peter with ill humor. "And, my good man, please tell me why not.

-- Why not? Ah! I will tell you: I have been told that you refuse your door to honest people, hard-working men like myself for petty offences. And why? Because, after working hard all week, they may drink a pint too much of cider on Sundays,... and then, need I say any more? You are the prince of the apostles, the head of the Church, are you not?

Saint Peter nodded, in agreement.

-- Well, in your church it's like everywhere else: Nothing there is more important than money. The rich come before the poor like everywhere else.... No, you won't be my son's godfather either. Goodbye!...

And he went on his way, still grumbling.

He then met an unpleasant-looking fellow. He was carrying a large scythe over his shoulder, like a reaper going to his work.

-- Where are you going, my good man?" the stranger asked him.

-- To find a godfather for my newborn son.

-- Do you want me as your godfather?

-- First I must tell you that I want a just man.

-- A just man! You will never find anyone more just than I am.

-- Everyone tells me that. But who are you?

-- I am Death.

-- Ah, yes! You are really just. You have no preference for anyone, and you do your job honestly. Rich and poor, noble and common, king and subject, young and old, weak and strong.... You take them all when their time has come. You do not let yourself be softened or weakened by tears, threats, prayers, or gold. Yes, you are truly just, and you will be my son's godfather. Come with me.

And the man returned to his cottage, taking with him the godfather he had chosen for his son.

Death held the infant at the baptismal font, and afterwards there was a little meal in the poor man's cottage, where they drank cider and ate white bread, unlike their everyday fare.

Before leaving, the godfather said to his friend: "You are very good people, your wife and you; but you are very poor! As you have chosen me to be the godfather of your son, I want to express my gratitude to you by revealing a secret that will make you earn a lot of money. You, friend, you are going to become a doctor now, and this is how you should behave: When you are called to a sick person, if you see me at the head of the bed, you can affirm that you will cure him, and give him anything as a remedy, even plain water. If you do so, he will always recover. If, to the contrary, you see me with my scythe at the foot of the bed, there will be nothing you can do. The patient will surely die, whatever you do to try to save him.

Here, then, is our fake medical doctor, putting into practice the system of his friend Death, and predicting, always with certainty, when his patients will recover or die. Because he was never mistaken, and, moreover, because the remedies did not cost him dearly, since he only gave plain water to his patients, whatever the disease, he was highly sought after and soon became rich.

However, Death, when he had occasion to pass by, came in from time to time to see his godson and talk with his friend.

The child grew and developed wonderfully, but the doctor, to the contrary, grew older and weaker every day.

One day Death said to him: "I always come to see you when I pass by here, but you've not yet come to my house. You must come and visit me, so that I can in turn be your host and show you my home."

"I'm in no hurry to visit you," replied the doctor, "because I know that once someone is at your place, comrade, they don't come back the way they want to."

-- Don't worry about that. I won't detain you until your time has come. You know that I am the most just of all men.

So the doctor left one night to visit his friend. They went overland for a long time: over hill and dale, crossing arid plains, forests, rivers, rivers, and regions completely unknown to the doctor.

Finally, Death stopped in front of an old castle surrounded by high walls, in the middle of a dark forest, and said to his companion: "It is here."

They entered. The master of the gloomy manor first entertained his guest magnificently, then, on leaving the table, he led him into an immense room where millions of candles of all sizes were burning: long, medium, and short. They burned more or less steadily, and cast light more or less clearly. Our man was at first astonished, dazzled, and speechless before this spectacle.

Then, when he could speak: "What do all these lights mean, my friend?" he asked.

-- These are the lights of life, my friend.

-- The lights of life? What do they mean?

-- All humans who now live on earth have candles there, to which their lives are attached.

-- But there are long ones, medium ones, short ones, bright ones, dull ones, dying ones... Why?

-- Yes, it's like all human lives: some are just beginning; others are in their prime with all their brilliance; others are weak and wavering; others finally are about to die out....

-- Why is this one so long and tall?

-- It is that of a child who has just been born.

-- And this other one, how brilliant and beautiful this light is!

-- It is that of someone in the prime of life.

-- Here's one that's going to die out for want of wax.

-- He is an old man who is dying.

-- And mine, where is it? I would like to see it.

-- Here it is, near you.

-- That one? Ah! My God, it is almost completely consumed! It will go out!

-- Yes, you only have three more days to live!

-- What are you saying? What, only three days!... But since I am your friend, and you are the master here, could you not make my candle last a little longer -- for example, by taking a little from that long one and adding it to mine?...

-- The long one is your son's, and if I did as you are asking, I would no longer be the just person you were looking for.

"That is true," replied the doctor, calming himself and heaving a deep sigh....

And he then returned home, put his affairs in order, called the priest of his parish, and died three days later -- just as his friend Death had predicted.

Told by J. Corvez, from Plourin, Finistère, 1876.

The Godson of Death


A Legend from Dauphiné

Once upon a time there was a man who had twelve children, and a thirteenth came to him. Very sadly he was walking along the path. He met a tall woman: It was Death.

She said to him: "What is it, my friend, that you are so sad?"

"In order to have my child baptized, I am looking for godfathers and godmothers, and I cannot find any."

The tall woman said, "Well! I will be your little one's godmother."

When the child was grown, he was very intelligent. His godmother had him raised to be a doctor. She gave him the gift of being a skilled doctor.

Before he went to his first patient, Death gave him this secret: "My godson, if you see me at the head of the bed, you can say that the patient will not recover, but if you see me at the foot of the bed, you can say with complete certainty that you will heal him."

This secret gave the doctor a great reputation, and the king heard about his great skill.

The king's daughter became ill.

The king summoned the doctor and said to him: "If you cure my daughter, I will give her to you in marriage."

When the doctor came to the patient, Death was at her head.

The doctor thought: "What should I do?"

He immediately brought in four men and had them turn the bed so that Death was now at the foot. Thus the skillful doctor cured the king's daughter, and the king showered him with riches.

However, Death called him to the underground where the candles of life were, and admonished him that if he ever returned, he would die.

Death forgave him the first time. Then the king became ill, and he called the doctor back. Death was at the head of the bed.

The doctor used the same stratagem as for the girl: He turned the foot of the bed to the head, and Death thus found himself at the foot. The king was healed.

However, Death called the skillful doctor back to the underground and told him that he had broken his promise and abused her kindness. Death showed him his candle which was burnt up. The doctor had to die. All his gifts and all his fortune were of no use to him against Death.

Juan Holgado and Death


Once upon a time there was a certain man named Juan Holgado (i.e., John Well-Off ); and truly nobody could have less deserved such a name, for morning nor evening, as a rule, could the poor fellow get enough to satisfy his hunger. Moreover he had a heap of youngsters with gullets like sharks.

One day Juan Holgado said to his wife: "These brats are a pack of gluttons, and are capable of swallowing oilcloth itself. I should like to eat a hare by myself, at my pleasure, and without those young mastiffs to take it out of my mouth."

His wife, -- who was a sweet woman, and always endeavouring to improve matters, in order not to worry the children, -- sold a dozen of eggs, which her hens had just laid, bought a hare with the money, cooked it with some meat broth, and early in the morning on the following day said to her husband: "Here in this pan is a cooked hare and half a loaf of bread; go and eat them in the field and much good may it do you."

Juan Holgado was not deaf, but seized the pan and ran off without waiting to see which way he was going. After he had gone about a league and a half, he sat down beneath the shade of an olive-tree, more contented than a king, and, recommending himself to our Lady of Loneliness, drew forth the bread, and putting down the pipkin with the hare in it, prepared for the feast.

But just imagine his feelings when he suddenly saw, seated in front of him, an old woman dressed in black, and as ugly as -- an unwilling gift! She was yellower and as skinny as lawyer's parchment; her eyes were as sunken and ghastly as a burnt-out lamp; her mouth was like a basket, whilst as for a nose -- well, she had none, not even the memory of one.

The grace which Juan Holgado said when he beheld this companion, dropped as it seemed from the clouds, was not a benediction. But what was to be done? He was not quite a barbarian, so he asked her if she would like to eat. As the old woman wished for nothing else, she answered that, rather than be unmannerly, she would partake of his meal.

She seated herself and began to eat. Good gracious! It was not eating, but devouring. What a gullet! In a twinkling she had put the whole hare out of sight.

"By all that is holy!" said Juan Holgado to himself; "it would have been better to have had my children to eat the hare than this old she demon! When one is unlucky, nothing ever goes right."

When the old woman had finished -- and not even the hare's tail was left -- she said: "Juan Holgado, I liked that hare very much."

"So I have seen!" replied Juan Holgado.

"I wish to repay the favour."

"May you live a thousand years!" slily remarked Juan, as he noticed the old lady's decrepitude.

"Doubtless I shall," responded she, "as I am Death herself."

Juan Holgado gave a very uneasy start, as he invoked Heaven.

"Do not disturb yourself, Juan Holgado, that need not trouble you. In order to repay you your favour, I am going to give you some advice. Become a doctor; for, according to my experience, there is no such a profession in the world as that, for becoming famous and gaining money.

"Madam Death, I should be very contented if, instead of that, you would oblige me with a good crop of years for myself; besides, the medical business is not in my line."

"Why not, man?"

"Because I have never studied it."

"That is nothing."

"Madam, I know neither Latin nor Greek."

"It does not matter."

"Madam, I know nothing of Geography."

"That does not affect the question."

"Madam, I cannot count beyond one."

"It is all the same."

"Madam, my hand trembles so that I can not write; nor can I read without getting into a brown study."

"Nonsense, fibber, nonsense!" said Death. "I am getting impatient at so many difficulties. Strange too with a fellow like you, Juan Holgado, who has a good sound headpiece! Have I not been saying for the last hour, that it does not matter? I tell you, I would not give a penny whistle for all the doctors know: I neither come nor go because they call me, or know me. I please myself, and laugh at the doctors; and when I like, I lay hold of one by the ear and carry him off. When the world was first peopled there were no doctors, and then things went on comfortably and pleasantly, but as soon as doctors were invented there were no more Methuselahs. You shall be a doctor, without any more fuss; and if you refuse, you shall come with me now, as sure as I am Death. Now attend to me, and be silent. In your whole life you have never prescribed anything but pure water, have you?"

"There you are right," answered Juan Holgado, who was more prepared to assent to what Death said than to listen to her.

"If, when you enter a room, you see me seated at the head of the invalid, you may be sure that the person will die, that there is no remedy, and that you may prepare the person for me. If, on the contrary, I am not there, you may assure the invalid of recovery, and prescribe pure water."

With these words the very ugly old woman took leave, after making a profound courtesy.

"Good madam," said Juan Holgado, "I did not wish to take leave of you with that 'Until we meet again;' and I hope that your ladyship will have little desire of visiting me, because I have not always got a hare with which to regale myself, and when I had this one, the old thief carried it off."

"Don't be troubled, Juan Holgado," said Death, "whilst your house is not dilapidated I will not call there."

Juan Holgado returned home and related to his wife what had passed; and his wife, who was more quickwitted than he, said to him, that whatsoever the old woman had said to him he might believe, because there was no one more truthful and certain than Death. And she soon spread about that her husband was a skilful doctor, and that he had only to look at an invalid in order to be able to know whether he would die or recover.

One Sunday there were a bevy of young girls, as merry as kittens, standing at the door of a house as Juan Holgado passed by.

"Here comes Juan Holgado," said one of them," who at the end of his days sets up for a doctor. It is as if one went in for salad soup at the end of a feast! And so now he is to be called Don Juan, and the Don becomes him about as well as a high-crowned hat would a mule!" And they all began to sing ironically.

"Let us have a joke with this conceited fellow!" said one of the girls. "I will pretend to be ill, and see if he will believe it."

No sooner said than done. The girls left a basket of figs that they were eating from, and before you could say "Jack Robinson," the girl who devised the scheme was in bed, and all of the others were pretending to bemoan her. Choking with laughter, they ran off to call Juan Holgado. He came, and as he entered he noticed at the street door a great heap of figskins. Inside the door, the first person to greet him was his compatriot Death, who was seated at the head of the bed, more serious than an empty bottle.

"She is very ill," then said Juan Holgado, and was going away.

"What is the matter with her?" said the girls, who could scarcely refrain from laughter.

"She has a surfeit of figs," replied he.

Juan Holgado went away, and in two hours the girl was dead. The reputation which this gave to our doctor may be imagined. When ever any one was ill in future, Juan Holgado was called in; and he gained guineas so quickly that he did not know what to do with them. He bought a title for his family, and some orders of knighthood for his sons. In the meanwhile he was satisfied with things as they went, so that he grew so fat and round that it did one good to see him; his face was like the full moon; his legs like pillars, and his fingers like sausages.

All this time Juan Holgado was very careful of his house. When the youngsters did any little injury to any part of it, he inflicted corporal punishment on them. He always retained a mason in his employ, whom he paid by the year, to keep the house in order, for he remembered that Death had told him that whilst he kept his house free from dilapidation she would not call there.

The years passed by, and each time ran faster than before, like a stone running down hill. The last brought a bad state of affairs. Juan Holgado received them very ungraciously, and in revenge one carried away his hair, another his teeth, another bent his backbone nearly double, and another obliged him with a limp.

One day he was very bad, and Death sent him a warning by a bat, for which Juan Holgado was not very thankful. Another day he was suffering from phlegm, and Death sent to say, by an agent, that she was ready to visit him. Juan Holgado said to the messenger that it was all make-believe with him. Another day an accident happened, and Death sent word by a dog, which howled outside his door, in the street. Juan Holgado took his crutch to the dog, and gave it a hard whack. The invalid grew worse, and Death called at the door. Juan ordered it to be barred, and that it should not be opened to her; but she managed to get in through a crack.

"Madam Death," said Juan Holgado to her, with a very bad grace," you said that you would not come for me whilst my house house was free from dilapidation; thus it is, that in spite of your messages, I have not expected you."

"What!" exclaimed Death." Don't you know that you have lost your powers? Don't you see that you have lost your teeth and your hair? Your body is your house."

"I did not know that, madam," said the invalid; "thus it is that I trusted in your words, and your arrival takes me by surprise."

"So much the worse for you, Juan Holgado," replied Death, "for he who is always forewarned is never surprised nor troubled at my coming; but you were blind, when you did not know that you were born to die; and you die in order to gain rest."

Dr. Urssenbeck, Physician of Death


The city of Vienna has always been distinguished for its famous physicians. Around the year 1482 one such well-known physician was Dr. Paul Urssenbeck, Rector of the University. His fame came from his ability to predict with certainty whether a patient would recover his or her health or would die. He thus became known as the doctor of death.

The following story is told as to how he achieved this remarkable gift:

In his earlier years he followed the trade of a poor but honest weaver in the town of Deckendorf near Straudigen in Bavaria. It was a time of famine, and he, his wife, and their eleven children were in great need. Then a twelfth child was born, and they could find no one to serve as its godparent. As a last chance, the poor weaver walked to a nearby village and asked an old friend to serve as godfather, but met only rejection.

Disappointed and frustrated the poor man made his back to his family. While walking sorrowfully through the dense forest toward his home, he said: "If I only could die."

Suddenly a tall figure dressed in a dark cloak appeared before him, saying: "You called me. I am Death. What can I do for you?"

As much as the man had previously wanted to die, he now wanted to live. "I am seeking a godfather for my youngest child. But I cannot find anyone who will serve as his godparent," answered the weaver sadly.

"I will accept this responsibility," said Death. And thus it happened.

Following the baptism the mysterious godfather took the father aside and said: "Since I possess neither gold nor silver to give to your child as a baptism present, I will make you into the most famous doctor of all times. Whenever you are called to a sick person, I -- invisible to others -- will seat myself either to the head or to the feet of the patient. If I am seated at the head, then this will show you that hope for recovery exists. If I am seated at the feet, then the patient will die.

Through this gift the weaver was able to cure many illnesses, for he knew whether the patient who had sought his treatment would be helped by medications, or whether he would die. Soon the previously poor weaver became a wealthy and respected physician. However, his increased wealth made him ever-more greedy

One day a very wealthy man fell seriously ill, but when Dr. Urssenbeck was called in, and he saw that Death was already seated at the patient's feet. Upon hearing the diagnosis, the next of kin could not be comforted, and they offered the physician a fortune if he could heal the prince. Then Urssenbeck resorted to trickery. He quickly had the patient's bed turned around, so that Death was now seated at his head. Thus the man was rescued from Death, and he regained his health.

On the physician's way home Death suddenly appeared before him. "You unfortunate one, why have you deceived me? In return for the life that you have given back to the rich man, you yourself must now die" spoke the reaper with a threatening voice, and disappeared.

Dr. Urssenbeck suddenly found himself in a large room where thousands of candles were burning. Death said to him, "Each of these candles represents someone's life. This tiny stump that is about to go out is yours." Terrified, Dr. Urssenbeck reached for a taller candle, wanting to take some wax from it to replenish his stump, but in so doing he touched his own candle, and it went out, and he fell to the floor dead.

That evening his body was found in a ravine. He was buried in the graveyard of Saint Stephen's Cathedral.

Godmother Death


There was a man, very poor in this world's goods, whose wife presented him with a baby boy. No one was willing to stand sponsor, because he was so very poor.

The father said to himself: "Dear Lord, I am so poor that no one is willing to be at my service in this matter; I'll take the baby, I'll go, and I'll ask the first person I meet to act as sponsor, and if I don't meet anybody, perhaps the sexton will help me."

He went and met Death, but didn't know what manner of person she was; she was a handsome woman, like any other woman. He asked her to be godmother. She didn't make any excuse, and immediately saluted him as parent of her godchild, took the baby in her arms, and carried him to church. The little lad was properly christened.

When they came out of church, the child's father took the godmother to an inn, and wanted to give her a little treat as godmother. But she said to him, "Gossip, leave this alone, and come with me to my abode."

She took him with her to her apartment, which was very handsomely furnished. Afterwards she conducted him into great vaults, and through these vaults they went right into the underworld in the dark. There tapers were burning of three sizes -- small, large, and middle-sized; and those which were not yet alight were very large.

The godmother said to the godchild's father: "Look, Gossip, here I have the duration of everybody's life."

The child's father gazed thereat, found there a tiny taper close to the very ground, and asked her: "But, Gossip, I pray you, whose is this little taper close to the ground?"

She said to him: "That is yours! When any taper whatsoever burns down, I must go for that man."

He said to her: "Gossip, I pray you, give me somewhat additional."

She said to him: "Gossip, I cannot do that!"

Afterwards she went and lighted a large new taper for the baby boy whom they had had christened. Meanwhile, while the godmother was not looking, the child's father took for himself a large new taper, lit it, and placed it where his tiny taper was burning down.

The godmother looked round at him and said: "Gossip, you ought not to have done that to me; but if you have given yourself additional lifetime, you have done so and possess it. Let us go hence, and we'll go to your wife."

She took a present, and went with the child's father and the child to the mother. She arrived, and placed the boy on his mother's bed, and asked her how she was, and whether she had any pain anywhere. The mother confided her griefs to her, and the father sent for some beer, and wanted to entertain her in his cottage, as godmother, in order to gratify her and show his gratitude. They drank and feasted together.

Afterwards the godmother said to her godchild's father: "Gossip, you are so poor that no one but myself would be at your service in this matter; but never mind, you shall bear me in memory! I will go to the houses of various respectable people and make them ill, and you shall physic and cure them. I will tell you all the remedies. I possess them all, and everybody will be glad to recompense you well, only observe this: When I stand at anyone's feet, you can be of assistance to every such person; but if I stand at anybody's head, don't attempt to aid him."

It came to pass. The child's father went from patient to patient, where the godmother caused illness, and benefited every one. All at once he became a distinguished physician.

A prince was dying -- nay, he had breathed his last -- nevertheless, they sent for the physician. He came, he began to anoint him with salves and give him his powders, and did him good. When he had restored him to health, they paid him well, without asking how much they were indebted.

Again, a count was dying. They sent for the physician again. The physician came. Death was standing behind the bed at his head.

The physician cried: "It's a bad case, but we'll have a try."

He summoned the servants, and ordered them to turn the bed round with the patient's feet towards Death, and began to anoint him with salves and administer powders into his mouth, and did him good. The count paid him in return as much as he could carry away, without ever asking how much he was indebted; he was only too glad that he had restored him to health.

When Death met the physician, she said to him: "Gossip, if this occurs to you again, don't play me that trick any more. True, you have done him good, but only for a while; I must, none the less, take him off whither he is due."

The child's father went on in this way for some years; he was now very old. But at last he was wearied out, and asked Death herself to take him. Death was unable to take shim, because he had given himself a long additional taper; she was obliged to wait till it burned out. One day he drove to a certain patient to restore him to health, and did so. Afterwards Death revealed herself to him, and rode with him in his carriage. She began to tickle and play with him, and tap him with a green twig under the throat; he threw himself into her lap, and went off into the last sleep. Death laid him in the carriage, and took herself off. They found the physician lying dead in his carriage, and conveyed him home.

The whole town and all the villages lamented: "That physician is much to be regretted. What a good doctor he was! He was of great assistance; there will never be his like again!"

His son remained after him, but had not the same skill. The son went one day into church, and his godmother met him.

She asked him: "My dear son, how are you?"

He said to her: "Not all alike; so long as I have what my dad saved up for me, it is well with me, but after that the Lord God knows how it will be with me."

His godmother said: "Well, my son, fear nought. I am your christening mamma; I helped your father to what he had, and will give you, too, a livelihood. You shall go to a physician as a pupil, and you shall be more skilful than he, only behave nicely."

After this she anointed him with salve over the ears, and conducted him to a physician. The physician didn't know what manner of lady it was, and what sort of son she brought him for instruction. The lady enjoined her son to behave nicely, and requested the physician to instruct him well, and bring him into a good position. Then she took leave of him and departed.

The physician and the lad went together to gather herbs, and each herb cried out to the pupil what remedial virtue it had, and the pupil gathered it. The physician also gathered herbs, but knew not, with regard to any herb, what remedial virtue it possessed. The pupil's herbs were beneficial in every disease.

The physician said to the pupil: "You are cleverer than I, for I diagnose no one that comes to me; but you know herbs counter to every disease. Do you know what? Let us join partnership. I will give my doctor's diploma up to you, and will be your assistant, and am willing to be with you till death."

The lad was successful in doctoring and curing till his taper burned out in limbo.

The Poor Man and Death


Where was it? Where was it not?

Once upon a time there was a poor man who had as many children as there are holes in a sieve, even more. When his last one was born, he could no longer find a godfather, for everyone he knew was already a godfather.

So he went away and wandered through seven countries, and then seven more, to see if he could find a godfather somewhere.

Walking without stopping to rest, he suddenly came upon the Lord Jesus, who asked him: "Where are you going, poor man?"

"I'm looking for a godfather for my little child," he replied. "I hope that I can find one."

"Listen," said the Lord Jesus to him. "Don't look any further. I will serve as your little child's godfather right away."

Then the poor man said: "Who are you then?"

"I am Jesus."

"Oh!" said the poor man. "I can't use you. You only love the good ones."

So he went on again without stopping to rest, and then he came upon Death.

Death spoke to him: "Where are you going, poor man?"

"I'm looking for a godfather for my son," he replied. "I hope that I can find one."

Then Death said to him: "Listen. Don't look any further. I will serve as your son's godfather right away."

Then the poor man said: "Who are you?

"I am Death."

"All right," said the poor man. "I will take you for my son's godfather, for you love the bad as well as the good."

Then Death said to him: "Come walk along with me a little longer. I want to change into my Sunday clothes; otherwise people will recognize me straight away."

So the poor man went to Death's house. Here he was very frightened, because many large and small lights were burning in the house.

He asked Death: "What are all those lights?"

Death said: "These are the lights of life. Every human being has one here, and they can only live as long as their light burns."

Then the poor man said to Death: "Be so kind as to show me mine."

Death showed him one that could only burn for a very little while longer.

Then the poor man said to Death: "Listen, Godfather! Add a little candle-stub to my light; otherwise it soon will go out."

But Death said, "That's not possible, comrade! I mustn't make the lights burn any longer. That would make Resurrection angry with me, for then she would not find anyone to awaken."

But the poor begged and begged, until Death finally added a candle-stub to his light.

Death next went to the poor man's house, where there was a tremendous baptismal feast. Death got a little drunk. He was so merry that he gave the poor man power to heal any sick person (even one close to death), if he but touched their bed, or stood in front of them.

However, if would ever say the Lord's Prayer or Amen, then he himself would soon die.

Because of his great power the poor man soon became very famous. He was called everywhere to heal the sick: to noble lords and to kings. He became very rich.

When Death took leave from him, he told him to visit him quite often. But now it was a few years later, and he had not yet visited Death. Finally he thought that it was time for him to visit Death. He had his beautiful silvery-white horses harnessed to the glass carriage (for he had become very rich), and galloped to Death.

Approaching Death's house, he found a child crying in the street; he immediately took him into the carriage and asked him why he was crying.

"Oh," said the little child, "I'm crying because my dear father hit me because I didn't know a word when I was praying."

The man asked: "What was the word? Our father?"

"No, that wasn't it," said the child.

The man then said all the words of the Lord's Prayer to the end -- but the forgotten word wasn't there.

At last he said: "Was it Amen?"

"Yes, that's it," said Death, for it was really him in the form of a crying child. "Amen for you, comrade. Amen!"

Then the man died on the spot. But his sons shared the great wealth and are still alive if they have not died.

Godfather Death

Italy (Sicily)

Once upon a time there was a man who had an only child. Now in those days some people did not have their children baptized while they were little, but waited until they were older. So this child was already seven years old, and the father had not yet had him baptized.

When the good Lord saw this from heaven, he was annoyed and called Saint John and said to him: "Listen, John, go to such and such a man and ask him why he hasn't had his son baptized yet."

So Saint John came down to earth and knocked on the man's door.

"Who's there?" asked the man.

"It's me, Saint John!"

"What do you want from me?" the man asked.

"The good Lord sent me," said the saint. "He wants to know why you haven't had your son baptized yet?"

"I haven't been able to find a good godparent," answered the man.

"Well, if that's so," said Saint John, then I'll be your child's godfather."

"Thank you," said the man, "but that can't be. If you were my child's godfather, you would have only one wish: to take him to paradise as soon as possible, and I don't want that."

So Saint John had to go back to heaven without having achieved anything.

Then the good Lord sent out Saint Peter to warn the man. But he didn't do any better. The man gave him the same answers that he had given to Saint John, and he did not want Saint Peter to be his son's godfather.

Then the good Lord thought: "Just what does he have in mind? He must want to give his son immortality, so I will have to send Death to him."

Then the good Lord called Death and sent him to the man to ask why he had not yet had the child baptized.

So Death came to the man and knocked.

"Who's there?" asked the man.

"God sent me," replied Death. "He wants to know why your child hasn't been baptized yet."

"Tell God," said the man, "I haven't found a suitable godparent yet."

"Do you want me to be his godfather?" asked Death.

"Who are you then?"

"I am Death."

"Yes," cried the man, "I would like you to be my child's godfather, and we shall have him baptized at once."

So the child was baptized.

A few months later Godfather Death suddenly came back to the man. The man received him kindly and wanted to serve him all sorts of good things.

But Death spoke: "Don't go to so much trouble, I just came to take you away."

"What?" cried the man in astonishment, "I chose you to be my child's godfather, so that you would spare me and my wife and my son."

"That's not possible," replied Death. "The sickle cuts any grass that it finds in its path. I cannot spare you."

Then Death took the man into a dark cellar, where a large number of lamps were burning on all the walls.

"You see," he said, "those are lights of life; every human has such a light, and when it goes out, they must die.

"Which one is my light?" asked the man.

Then Death showed him a little lamp in which there was almost no oil left, and when it went out the man fell over and was dead.

Did Death have the son die as well?

Yes, of course. Death can spare no one. When his time was up, the son had to die also.

The Just Man


Once upon a time there was a peasant and his wife who had a child that they would not baptize until they could find a just man for his godfather.

The father took the child in his arms and went into the street to look for this just man. After he had walked along a while, he met a man, who was our Lord, and said to him, "I have this child to baptize, but I do not want to give him to anyone who is not just. Are you just?"

The Lord answered, "But -- I don't know whether I am just."

Then the peasant passed on and met a woman, who was the Madonna, and said to her, "I have this child to baptize and do not wish to give him to anyone who is not just. Are you just?"

"I don't know," said the Madonna. "But go on, for you will find someone who is just."

He went his way and met another woman, who was Death, and said to her, "I have been sent to you, for I have been told that you are just, and I have this child to baptize, and do not wish to give it to one who is not just. Are you just?"

Death said, "Yes, I believe I am just! Let us baptize the child, and then I will show you whether I am just."

Then they baptized the child, and afterwards Death led the peasant into a very long room, where there were many lights burning.

"Godmother," said the man, astonished at seeing all the light, "what are all these lights?"

Death said, "These are the lights of all the souls in the world. Would you like to see, friend? This is yours and this is your son's"

When the peasant saw that his light was about to expire, he said, "And when the oil is all consumed, godmother?"

"Then," answered Death, "you must come with me, for I am Death."

"Oh! for mercy's sake," cried the peasant, "let me at least take a little oil from my son's lamp and put it in mine!"

"No, no, godfather," said Death. "I don't do anything of that sort. You wished to see a just person, and a just person you have found. And now go home and arrange your affairs, for I am waiting for you."

Godfather Charon

Greece (Lesbos)

Once upon a time there was a very poor man who wished to take Charon as his godfather, and actually did so. Because he was now so poor, Charon advised him to become a doctor. In this way he would become wealthy.

Charon said: "If you see me sitting at the foot of the sick man, give him a few drops of colored water, and he will recover. If you see me sitting next to his body, do the same. But if you see me sitting close to his head, then you must say: 'The sick person will die; he cannot recover,' and go away."

The man did so. He became a famous doctor and acquired untold wealth.

One day he he asked Godfather Charon: "You are not going to take me away now, are you?"

"No," Charon answered him, "I'll not take you away until three years from now."

Then the man left his homeland to escape from Charon, and after a year's wanderings he arrived in a place where he thought Charon would not find him.

However, just three years after he had left home, while he was drinking coffee in a coffee house, Charon suddenly appeared before him and said: "Hello, godson! I haven't seen you for three years! It is now time for me to take your soul."

The doctor answered: "No, dear godfather, no, dear Charon, don't take my soul. Let me live!"

But Charon replied: "No, I have no choice. God sent me."

And without further ado Charon took his soul. He was not even able to finish his coffee.

Charon recognizes neither friendship nor kinship nor mercy. All people are equal in his eyes, and wherever they may flee, Charon knows how to find them.

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Revised May 1, 2022.