The Black School

migratory legends of Christiansen type 3000
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2000-2011


  1. The Black School (Iceland).

  2. Black Airt (Scotland).

  3. Links to related sites.

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

The Black School


Once upon a time there existed somewhere in the world, nobody knows where, a school which was called the Black School. There the pupils learned witchcraft and all sorts of ancient arts. Wherever this school was, it was somewhere below ground, and was held in a strong room which, as it had no window, was eternally dark and changeless. There was no teacher either, but everything was learnt from books with fiery letters, which could be read quite easily in the dark. Never were the pupils allowed to go out into the open air or see the daylight during the whole time they stayed there, which was from five to seven years. By then they had gained a thorough and perfect knowledge of the sciences to be learnt. A shaggy gray hand came through the wall every day with the pupils' meals, and when they had finished eating and drinking took back the horns and platters. But one of the rules of the school was, that the owner should keep for himself that one of the students who should leave the school the last every year. And, considering that it was pretty well known among the pupils that the devil himself was the master, you may fancy what a scramble there was at each year's end, everybody doing his best to avoid being last to leave the school.

It happened once that three Icelanders went to this school, by the name of Sæmundur the Learned, Kálfur Arnason, and Hálfdán Eldjárnsson; and as they all arrived at the same time, they were all supposed to leave at the same time. Sæmundur declared himself willing to be the last of them, at which the others were much lightened in mind. So he threw over himself a large mantle, leaving the sleeves loose and the fastenings free.

A staircase led from the school to the upper world, and when Sæmundur was about to mount this the devil grasped at him and said, "You are mine!"

But Sæmundur slipped out of this mantle and made off with all speed, leaving the devil the empty cloak. However, just as he left the school the heavy iron door was slammed suddenly to, and wounded Sæmundur on the heels. Then he said, "That was pretty close upon my heels," which words have since passed into a proverb. The Sæmundur contrived to escape from the Black School, with his companions, scot-free.

Some people relate, that, when Sæmundur came into the doorway, the sun shone upon him and threw his shadow onto the opposite wall. And as the devil stretched out his hand to grapple with him, Sæmundur said, "I am not the last. Do you not see who follows me?"

So the devil seized the shadow, mistaking it for a man, and Sæmundur escaped with a blow on his heels from the iron door.

But from that hour he was always shadowless, for whatever the devil took, he never gave back again.

Black Airt


"Black Airt" was firmly believed in [in the north-east of Scotland]. If the proficients in this science did not make a compact with Satan, they were very much in communion with him. He was regarded as the fountain from which it sprang. It was looked upon as a kind of wisdom by which men came to be able to know the hidden essence of things, the virtues of herbs for cure or poison, to have power over nature in many of her workings, power to cure disease, to guard against witches and fairies, to remove their spells, to discover thieves, and even to see into the future. Under the teaching they got, some of the students reached a high degree of expertness, and became a match for the devil himself in cunning, and were even able to outwit him.

Spain and Italy, particularly Italy, were the countries in which the science was most flourishing, and in which it was taught most efficiently, and thither all, who wished to become adepts in it, went. Its study was carried on in dark rooms under famous teachers; and, on leaving the classrooms, the students had to pass through a long black passage at the end of which stood the prince of darkness watching to catch the last one.

No sooner had the last word of the professor's lecture been spoken than out rushed the students, and made for the light pell-mell through the black passage shouting, "Deel tack the hinmost!"

The devil, on one occasion, clutched at a student. He met one who was more than a match for him. The student called out, "There is another behind me!"

His sable majesty looked first to this side, and then to that. He saw what seemed a man. He rushed upon it and seized it. It was the student's shadow. Ever after the student was shadowless.

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Revised February 4, 2011.