Death's Messengers

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 335
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2019

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


  1. Death's Messengers (Retold by D. L. Ashliman).

  2. Death's Messengers (Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof, Wendunmuth).

  3. Death's Messengers (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).

  4. An Old Man That Was Willing to Put off Death (Laurentius Abstemius).

  5. Our Lord and the Church Father (Transylvania).

  6. The Old Man and the Physician (Rumi, The Masnavi).

  7. Spanish Moss (Georgia, USA).

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

Death's Messengers

Retold by D. L. Ashliman

Death entered into a pact with a young man, agreeing not to come for him without first sending messengers in advance. Some years later Death appeared, saying, "Your time has come."

"But you did not send your messengers in advance," said the man. "You can't take me yet."

"Has your sight not dimmed?" asked Death. "Is not your hair thin and gray? Your back hunched? Your arms weak? And your once long stride now a feeble shuffle?"

"That is true," admitted the man, then started to protest anew.

"Those were my messengers," said Death, interrupting him abruptly. "Your failure to recognize them changes nothing. Your time has come."

Death's Messengers

Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof, Wendunmuth

It is said that once a large, powerful giant overcame Death. He struck him down and left him lying on the ground unconscious and powerless. A young man came by and mercifully helped the defeated one recover his former health and strength.

Death thanked the young man by promising that although God and nature dictated that all men must die, Death would not take him without giving him advanced notice. The young man, because of this promise, felt secure and proud. He ate and drank in excess and led a sinful life. With time he was plagued with any number of ailments.

Then Death approached him, telling him that his hour of departure had arrived.

The man did not accept this fate and accused Death of failing to keep his promise, as he had sent no messengers to forewarn him.

"Hey! Be still!" answered Death. "Have you not received any number of messengers? Some years ago you were plagued with severe fever and soon afterward an even worse one. Now your head is dizzy; your chest suffers from coughing and wheezing; your belly aches with great pain; your arms and legs have lost their strength; your skin has become withered and wrinkly. You should have been reminded of all those things by my dear brother sleep, in whose bands you have so often lain as if you were dead. Therefore your excuses are nothing. I shall take you with me."

Death's Messengers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

In ancient times a giant was wandering along the highway when suddenly a stranger jumped toward him and shouted, "Stop! Not one step further!"

"What?" said the giant. "You, a creature that I could crush between my fingers, you want to block my way? Who are you that you dare to speak so boldly?"

"I am Death," answered the other one. "No one resists me, and you too must obey my orders."

But the giant refused, and began to wrestle with Death. It was a long, violent battle, and finally the giant got the upper hand, and knocked Death down with his fist, causing him to collapse by a stone. The giant went on his way, and Death lay there conquered, so weak that he could not get up again.

"What is to come of this?" he said. "If I stay lying here in a corner, no one will die in the world, and it will become so filled with people that they won't have room to stand beside one another."

Meanwhile a young man came down the road. Vigorous and healthy, he was singing a song and looking this way and that. Seeing the half-conscious individual, he approached him with compassion, raised him up, gave him a refreshing drink from his flask, and waited until he regained his strength.

"Do you know," asked the stranger, as he stood up, "who I am, and whom you have helped onto his legs again?"

"No," answered the youth, "I do not know you."

"I am Death," he said. "I spare no one, nor can I make an exception with you. However, so you may see that I am grateful, I promise you that I will not attack you without warning, but instead will send my messengers to you before I come and take you away."

"Good," said the youth. "It is to my benefit that I shall know when you are coming, and that I will be safe from you until then."

Then he went on his way, and was cheerful and carefree, and lived one day at a time. However, youth and good health did not last long. Soon came sickness and pain, which tormented him by day and deprived him of his rest by night.

"I shall not die," he said to himself, "for Death will first send his messengers, but I do wish that these wicked days of sickness were over."

Regaining his health, he began once more to live cheerfully. Then one day someone tapped on his shoulder.

He looked around, and death was standing behind him, who said, "Follow me. The hour of your departure from this world has come."

"What?" replied the man. "Are you breaking your word? Did you not promise me that you would send your messengers to me before you yourself would come? I have not seen a one of them."

"Be still!" answered Death. "Have I not sent you one messenger after another? Did not fever come and strike you, and shake you, and throw you down? Has not dizziness numbed your head? Has not gout pinched your limbs? Did your ears not buzz? Did toothache not bite into your cheeks? Did your eyes not darken? And furthermore, has not my own brother Sleep reminded you every night of me? During the night did you not lie there as if you were already dead?"

The man did not know how to answer, so he surrendered to his fate and went away with Death.

An Old Man That Was Willing to Put off Death

Laurentius Abstemius

There goes a Story that Death call'd upon an Old Man, and bad him come along with him. The Man Excus'd himself, that T'other world was a Great Journy to take upon so short a Warning, and begg'd a Little time only to make his Will before he Dy'd.

Why (says Death) You have had Warning enough One would think, to have made Ready before This.

In truth, says the Old Man. This is the First Time that ever I saw ye in my whole Life.

That's False, says Death, for you have had Daily Examples of Mortality before Your Eyes, in People of All Sorts, Ages, and Degrees; And is not the Frequent Spectacle of Other Peoples Deaths, a Memento sufficient to make You think of Your Own? Your Dim and Hollow Eyes methinks, the Los of your Hearing, and the Faltering of the rest or your Senses, should Mind ye, without more ado, that Death has bid hold of ye already: And is This a time of day d'ye think to stand Shuffling it off still?

Your Peremptory Hour, I tell ye, is now come, and there's No Thought of a Reprieve in the Case of Fate.


Want of Warning is No Excuse in the Case of Death: For Every Moment of our Lives; either Is, or Ought to he a Time of Preparation for't.


'Tis the Great Bus'ness of Life to fit our selves for our End; and no Man can Live Well that has not Death always in his Eye.

'Tis a Strange Mixture of Madness and Folly in One Solecism, for People to Say or Imagine that ever any Man was Taken out of This World without time to Prepare himself for Death: But the Delay of Fitting our selves is our Own Fault, and we turn the very Sin into an Excuse.

Every Breath we draw is not only a Step towards Death, but a Part of it. It was Born with us, It goes along with us: It is the Only Constant Companion that we have in This World, and yet we never think of it any more then if we knew Nothing on't.

The Text is True to the very Letter, that we Die Daily, and yet we Feel it not. Every thing under the Sun reads a Lecture of Mortality to us. Our Neighbours, our Friends, our Relations, that fall Every where round about us, Admonish us of our Last Hour; and yet here's an Old Man on the Wrong-side of Fourscore perhaps, Complaining that he is surpriz'd.

Our Lord and the Church Father


A church father, as it happens now and again, made a gift to his church. It was a magnificent candelabra with a large wax candle. Our Lord appeared to him in the form of an old man and promised him that as thanks for this gift he would forewarn the church father three times about death before calling him from this earth.

Happy about this, the church father led a merry and lavish life, eating and drinking to his heart's content. He took every advantage of the church's winecellar. Living such a life, he never thought about death.

However, after a few years his body began to give in. His knees failed him. His back bent downward. He could walk only with the aid of a crutch. Not long afterward he lost his sight, and then his hearing as well.

Crippled, blind, and deaf as he was, he nonetheless continued the same frivolous life as before.

Finally our Lord came to take him away. The church father was surprised and angry. He complained as to why he had not been forewarned three times as promised.

To this our Lord spoke with justified anger: "What? Did I not forewarn you? Did I not at first knock on your armpits and knees causing you to walk crookedly? Did I not touch your eyes with my finger causing you to lose your sight? Did I not pull your ears causing you to lose your hearing? My promise to you has been fulfilled. Follow after me!"

The church father humbly begged for forgiveness, saying that he truthfully had not understood the messages and thus had not prepared himself for death.

Our Lord looked gently at the penitent church father and said: "Just come with me. I will treat you more with mercy than with justice!"

You all must take note of this: Our Lord is forewarning you as well. Be sure that when he calls for you, you are not as unprepared as was this church father.

The Old Man and the Physician

Rumi, The Masnavi

An old man complained to his physician that he suffered from headache.

The physician replied, "That is caused by old age."

The old man next complained of a defect in his sight, and the physician again told him that his malady was due to old age.

The old man went on to say that he suffered from pain in the back, from dyspepsia, from shortness of breath, from nervous debility, from inability to walk, and so on; and the physician replied that each of these ailments was likewise caused by old age.

The old man, losing patience, said, "Fool, know you not that God has ordained a remedy for every malady?"

The physician answered, "This passion and choler are also symptoms of old age. Since all your members are weak, you have lost the power of self-control, and fly into a passion at every word.''

Spanish Moss

Georgia, USA

Long time ago there was a powerful wicked man. He was that sinful, that Death he don't have the heart to cut him off in his sins, 'cepten' he give him a warning. So one day Death he appear to the wicked man, and he tell him how that day week he gwine come for him.

The wicked man he that frightened, he get on his knees and beg Death to let him live a little longer. The wicked man he take on, and he beg, 'twell Death he promise he won't come for him 'twell he give him one more warning.

Well, the years go by, but the wicked man he grow more wicked; and one day Death he appear to him again, and Death he tell the wicked man how that day week he gwine come for him; but the wicked man he more frightened than what he was before; and he get on his knees, the wicked man do, and beg Death to let him live a little longer; and Death he promise the wicked man how before he come for him he gwine send him a token what he can see or what he can hear.

Well, the years go by; and the wicked man he get a powerful old man, -- he deaf and blind, and he jest drag hisself about.

One day Death he done come for the wicked man once more, but the wicked man he say how Death done promise him he won't come for him twell he send him a token what he can see or hear; and Death he say he done send a token what he can see.

Then the wicked man he say how he can't see no token, 'cause he say how he done blind.

Then Death he say how he done send a token what he can hear.

But the wicked man he say how he plum deaf, and he say how he can't hear no token; and he beg Death that hard to let him live, that Death he get plum outdone with the wicked man, and Death he jest go off and leave him to hisself.

And the wicked man he jest wander about the woods, and his chillen all die, and his friends all die. Still he jest wander about the woods. He blind, and he can't see; and he deaf, and he can't hear. He that blind he can't see to find no food; and he that deaf he never know when anybody try to speak to him.

And the wicked man he done perish away twell he jest a shaddow with long hair. His hair it grow longer and longer, and it blow in the wind; and still he can't die, 'cause Death he done pass him by. So he here to wander and blow about in the woods, and he perish away twell all yo can see is his powerful long hair blowing all 'bout the trees; and his hair it done blow about the trees twell it done grow fast, and now yo all folks done calls it Spanish Moss.

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Revised December 18, 2019.