folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1175
in which a demon is defeated
because he cannot
straighten a curly hair
D. L. Ashliman
In a certain village there lived a very rich landlord who owned several villages, but was such a great miser that no tenant would willingly cultivate his lands, and those he had gave him not a little trouble. He was indeed so vexed with them that he left all his lands untilled, and his tanks and irrigation channels dried up. All this, of course, made him poorer and poorer day by day. Nevertheless, he never liked the idea of freely opening his purse to his tenants and obtaining their good will.
While he was in this frame of mind a learned Sanayâsi [holy man] paid him a visit, and on his representing his case to him, he said, "My dear son, I know an incantation (mantra) in which I can instruct you. If you repeat it for three months day and night, a Brahmarâkshas will appear before you on the first day of the fourth month. Make him your servant, and then you can set at naught all your petty troubles with your tenants. The Brahmarâkshas will obey all your orders, and you will find him equal to one hundred servants."
Our hero fell at his feet and begged to be instructed at once. The sage then sat facing the east and his disciple the landlord facing the west, and in this position formal instruction was given, after which the Sanayâsi went his way.
The landlord, mightily pleased at what he had learnt, went on practicing the incantation, till, on the first day of the fourth month, the great Brahmarâkshas stood before him.
"What do you want, sir, for my hands?" said he. "What is the object of your having propitiated me for these three months?"
The landlord was thunderstruck at the huge monster who now stood before him and still more so at his terrible voice, but nevertheless said, "I want you to become my servant and obey all my commands."
"Agreed," answered the Brahmarâkshas in a very mild tone, for it was his duty to leave off his impertinent ways when anyone who had performed the required penance wanted him to become his servant. "Agreed. But you must always give me work to do. When one job is finished you must at once give me a second, and so on. If you fail, I shall kill you."
The landlord, thinking that he would have work for several such Brahmarâkshasas, was pleased to see that his demoniacal servant was so eager to help him. He at once took him to a big tank, which had been dried up for several years, and pointing it out spoke as follows, "You see this big tank; you must make it as deep as the height of two palmyra trees and repair the embankment wherever it is broken."
"Yes, my master, your orders shall be obeyed," humbly replied the servant and fell to work.
The landlord, thinking that it would take several months, if not years, to do the work in the tank, for it was two kos long and one kos broad, returned delighted to his home, where his people were awaiting him with a sumptuous dinner.
When evening was approaching, the Brahmarâkshas came to inform his master that he had finished his work in the tank. He was indeed astonished and feared for his own life.
"What! Finished the work in one day which I thought would occupy him for months and years. If he goes on at this rate, how shall I keep him employed. And when I cannot find it for him he will kill me!" Thus he thought and began to weep.
His wife wiped the tears that ran down his face, and said, "My dearest husband, you must not lose courage. Get out of the Brahmarâkshas all the work you can and then let me know. I'll give him something that will keep him engaged for a very very long time, and then he'll trouble us no more."
But her husband only thought her words to be meaningless and followed the Brahmarâkshas to see what he had done. Sure enough the thing was as complete as could be, so he asked him to plow all his lands, which extended over twenty villages! This was done in two ghatikas! The landlord now grew hopeless.
"What more work have you for me?" roared the Brahmarâkshas, as he found that his master had nothing for him to do, and that the time for his eating him up was approaching.
"My dear friend," said he, "my wife says she has a little job to give you. Do it please now. I think that is the last thing I can give you to do, and after it, in obedience to the conditions under which you took service with me, I must become your prey!
At this moment his wife came to them, holding in her left hand a long hair, which she had just pulled out from her head, and said, "Well Brahmarâkshas, I have only a very light job for you. Take this hair, and when you have made it straight, bring it back to me."
The Brahmarâkshas calmly took it, and sat in a pîpal tree to make it straight. He rolled it several times on his thigh and lifted it up to see if it became straight; but no, it would still bend! Just then it occurred to him that goldsmiths, when they want to make their metal wires straight, have them heated in fire; so he went to a fire and placed the hair over it, and of course it frizzled up with a nasty smell! He was horrified!
"What will my master's wife say if I do not produce the hair she gave me?"
So he became mightily afraid, and ran away.
This story is told to explain the modern custom of nailing a handful of hair to a tree in which devils are supposed to dwell, to drive them away.
He came near, and feeling the genial influence of the flame from afar, incautiously shouted "Tapai, tapai," meaning "I am warmed, I am warmed."
Alas, the creatures round the fire were maleficent ghosts, hideous, distorted, grinning, sworn enemies of mankind, shouting obscene words with the nasal utterance which marks their race.
Moreover, one of them was named Tapai, and the ghostly assemblage were mightily vexed at a mortal's familiar use of their comrade's name. They threatened him with instant death. The Brahman, in terror, felt for his sacred thread, but it had slipped down. He strove to repeat the holy names of the gods, but his memory was paralyzed with fear. But finally the thread came into his hand, and taking heart, he boldly asserted that he knew Tapai quite well, seeing that Tapai and his ancestors for three generations had been the slaves of his family.
"Well," cried Tapai, "if he can tell me the names of my ancestors, I will become his bond servant."
To which the keen-witted priest replied, "How can I be expected to know the names of all the slaves of my ancestors? But I have them recorded in a ledger at home." On which he was allowed to depart on condition that he returned on the third day to answer to Tapai's challenge. Otherwise not only he but his family would perish at the hands of the man-eating bhutas.
The Brahman went home, saved for the moment, indeed, but filled with despair for the future. For two miserable days the wretched priest could neither eat nor sleep, and his wife and daughter and infant son shared his anxiety. The third night, when his family slept, the miserable man went forth to hang himself in the jungle rather than face his ghostly foes. But on the very tree he chose for his suicide were two dark forms. He shuddered, he stood still, but he listened.
It was Tapai and his wife, and the latter, with true feminine curiosity, was asking her husband the names of his forebears. Of course Tapai had to tell, as every husband does when his wife presses him. He recited the following verse:
And his son Chharamu,
And his son Apai,
And his son Tapai.
Such was the verse which the Brahman committed to memory, and groping his way home through the dark forest, faced life with a new confidence. Next evening he went to the ghostly rendezvous, and the unlucky Tapai followed him home, his submissive slave.
But there was one condition. Tapai would perform all tasks given to him from dawn till nightfall. But he must be kept occupied all the time. At first the condition seemed easy to fulfil. The bhuta was ordered to build a palace, raise a noble temple, dig a tank, procure a bridegroom for the Brahman's daughter, etc., etc. But there are limits to human desires and human inventiveness, and even the Brahman was, in spite of all the luxury with which he was now surrounded, a harassed and perplexed mortal.
He was like to die of sheer worry and anxious thought, when his wife came to his rescue. She plucked a curly hair from her husband's eyebrow. "Give that to the creature," she said, "and tell him to straighten it."
The poor demon, for once, was at his wit's end. He pulled the hair, and pressed it, and wetted it. But all in vain. The moment it was released, it curled up again. Finally, at nightfall, the good Brahman released Tapai, as Prospero released Ariel, and then he and his family lived happily afterwards!
The devil once called on a farmer and asked him if he could give him a job.
"What can you do?" said the farmer.
"Oh! anything about a farm," said the devil.
"Well, I want a man to help me thresh a mow of wheat," says the farmer.
"All right," says the devil, "I'm your man."
When they got to the barn, the farmer said to the devil, "Which do you want to do, thresh or throw down?"
"Thresh," said the devil.
So the farmer got on top of the mow and began to throw down the sheaves of wheat onto the barn floor, but as fast as he could throw them down, the devil with one stroke of his flail knocked all the grain out of them and sent the sheaves flying out of the barn door.
The farmer thought he had got a queer sort of a thresher man; and as he couldn't throw down fast enough for him, he says to him, "Will you come and throw down?"
"All right," says the devil. So the farmer gets down off the mow by the ladder, but the devil, he just gives a leap up from the barn floor to the top of the mow without waiting to go up the ladder.
"Are you ready?" says the devil.
"Yes," says the farmer.
With that the devil sticks his fork into as many sheaves as would cover the barn floor and throws them down.
"That'll do for a bit," says the farmer. So the devil sat down and waited till the farmer had threshed that lot, and when he was ready again, he threw another floor full; and before night they'd finished threshing the whole mow of wheat. The farmer couldn't help thinking a good deal about his new man, for he'd never seen such a one before. (He didn't know it was the devil, you know, because he took care not to let the farmer see his cloven foot.)
So in the morning he got up early and went and spoke to a cunning man about it. The cunning man said it must be the devil that had come to him, and as he had asked him in, he couldn't get rid of him unless he could give him a job that he couldn't do.
Soon after the farmer got home again, his new man wanted to know what he was to do that day, and the farmer thought he'd give him a teaser, so he says, "Go into the barn, look, and count the number of grains there are in that pile of wheat that we threshed out yesterday."
"All right," says old Nick, and off he went. In a few minutes he comes back and says, "Master, there are so many" (naming ever so many thousand or millions and odd, I don't know how many).
"Are you sure you counted them all?" says the farmer.
"Every grain," says Satan.
Then the farmer ordered him to go and fill a hogshead barrel full of water with a sieve. So off he shoots again, but soon comes back and tells the farmer he'd done it; and sure enough he had. And every job the farmer set him to do was the same. The poor farmer didn't know what to make of it, for though he was getting his work done up so quick, he didn't like his new man's company.
However, the farmer thought he'd have another try to trick him, and told the devil he wanted him to go with him mowing next morning.
"All right," says the old one. "I'll be there, master."
But as soon as it was night, the farmer went to the field, and in the part the devil was to mow, he drove a lot of harrow tines into the ground amongst the grass. In the morning they got to the field in smart time, and began to mow. The farmer he took his side, and told the devil to begin on the other, where he'd stuck in the harrow tines, you know. Well, at it went the devil, who but he, and soon got in among the stuck-up harrow tines, but they made no odds. His scythe went through them all, and the only notice on them he took was to say to the farmer every time he'd cut one of them through, "a burdock, master," and kept on just the same.
The poor farmer, he got so frightened at last, he threw down his scythe and left the devil to finish the field. As luck would have it, soon after he got home, a Gypsy woman called at the farm house, and seeing the farmer was in trouble, asked him what was the matter. So he up and told her all about it.
"Ah, master," she says to him when he had told her all about it, "you have got the devil in your house sure enough, and you can only get rid of him by giving him something to do that he can't manage."
"Well, woman," says the farmer, "what's the use of telling me that? I tried everything I can think of, but darned if I can find him any job that he can't do."
"I'll tell you what to do," says the Gypsy woman, "When he comes home, you get the missus to give him one of her curly hairs, and then send him to the blacksmith's shop to straighten it on the blacksmith's anvil. He'll find he can't do that, and he'll get so wild over it, that he'll never come back to you again."
The farmer was very thankful to the Gypsy woman and said he'd try her plan.
So by and by in comes the old fellow, and says, "I have finished the mowing, master. What else have you got for me to do?"
"Well, I can't think of another job just now," says the farmer, "but I think the missus has got a little job for you."
So he called the missus, and she gave the devil a curly hair lapped up in a bit of paper, and told him to go to the blacksmith's shop and hammer that there hair straight; and when it was straight to bring it back to her.
"All right, missus," the devil says, and off he shot. When he got to the blacksmith's shop, he hammered and hammered at that there hair on the anvil, but the more he hammered the crookeder the hair got; so at last he threw down the hammer and the hair, and bolted, and never went back to the farmer again.
A young man made the following contract with the devil: The devil was to provide the man with money. In return, at a predetermined time the man was to give the devil work that would keep him busy an entire day. If the man were able to do this, then the devil would have given him the money for nothing. If he were not able to do this, then the man would belong to the devil, and the latter would be able to take him away.
It came to pass that the time lapsed just as the man was celebrating his wedding. A boy came up to him and told him that a strange gentleman was outside who wanted to speak with him. The man immediately remembered the devil and did not go. The boy returned and called for him again, but still he did not go.
Then the devil came inside personally and demanded either a task or the man himself. The man showed him a field of clover and told him to mow it. This would have taken a single man several days, but the devil finished it in an instant and demanded another task. Then the man took a bushel of clover seeds, scattered them over the field, and told the devil to gather them back up. It was a simple matter for him, and he was finished in a half hour. The man became terrified when the devil asked for yet another task.
Then the man's bride noticed her husband's concern and said, "What is the matter? Why do you keep running in and out?"
The man confessed everything to her and told her of the danger that he now faced.
The bride said, "I will help you. You should have told me about it earlier!" Plucking out one of her short curly hairs, she gave it to her husband and said, "Take this to the devil and demand that he straighten it!"
The man did this. The devil made an ugly face, then picked and pulled and bent away at the hair. He even placed it on an anvil and tried to pound it straight with a hammer, but it was all for nothing. The devil was not able to complete this task that day. The hair remained curly and crooked, and he was tricked out of his prize.
Additional folktales about mortals who enter into reckless contracts with demonic helpers:
Revised March 23, 2021.