Godfather Death

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

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2013


  1. Godfather Death (Germany)

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

  3. The Boy with the Ale Keg (Norway)

  4. The Just Man (Italy)

  5. 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!"

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.

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.

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 Death" stories are classified as type 332 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale classification system. For more information about folktale types see:

Related Links

Return to

Revised June 6, 2013.