The story “Godfather Death” was reported by the Grimm Brothers in the 1812. It is one of several similar stories found throughout Europe. My version is taken from both the Grimm version and an Austrian tale entitled, “Dr. Urssenbeck, Physician of Death.” The Grimm Brothers cite two different endings to this tale in the annotations of their story. In one Godfather Death actively causes the death of his godson. In the other version, he simply gives him a warning. This reflects the two views of death found in the middle ages. The first, shows death as an instrument of the devil, capriciously and maliciously killing people. The second, sees death as a force of nature as inevitable as gravity. It is something to be faced and accepted. As you read my telling, you’ll discover which of these two views I favor.
I’ve told this story often. Over time it began to bother me, for all the characters in the tale (other than the dying princess) are male. Did you notice that? How could a story have only male characters? I didn’t know but it never set right with me. I wondered if the Grimm Brothers edited this tale. The earliest known version appeared in Germany in 1553 but it seemed much older to me. Perhaps several hundred years earlier, during the time of the Black Death. It was a time of fear and social unrest, when death was personified, and women rather than men were healers. In the Italian version called “The Just Man,” there is a Godmother Death. Influenced by the Italian tale, I crafted this version with the wise crone taking the role of Godmother Death. I based it in the 1300’s when I believe the tale first derived.
If you’ve never read the Grimm version of “Godfather Death,” you might want to do so before you read my story below.
“There once was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.”
This is a story of a poor woman who had 12 children. When she discovered she was pregnant with her 13th child, she was distraught. Her husband was dead, and she was left alone to tend her young family. It was all she could do to eke out a living. Pushing a plough, tending the sheep and spinning wool into yarn, left her with little time for her growing brood. She couldn’t possibly feed another mouth. What to do? What could she do?
For several days she sought the advice of others. But no one could help. She was left with her prayers and her tears. Then one day she had an idea.
“I know,” she said. “This child needs a godmother. If I can only find a godmother, my child will have all the love and care she deserves.” Sadly, she had no one in her family to volunteer and all of her friends were as poor as church mice. There was only one thing left to do.
She woke early the next morning and climbed to the top of the hill where all the roads crossed from four directions. Then she waited. It wasn’t long before the sky was filled with light. It was so bright that she had to close her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw before her a beautiful woman. She had a crown on her head and a scepter in her hand. A white dove sat on her shoulder. A golden light surrounded her. When she spoke, her voice was kind and loving.
“My child,” she said. “I felt your tears, I heard your prayers. I am here to be the godmother for your unborn child.”
“You are?” the woman replied. “Who are you? How did you know?”
“I am a mother too,” she answered. “I am Mary, mother of the Christ child. I hear the cries of all mothers.”
“Mary wants to be the godmother for my child?”
“Yes. I will see that she grows to be righteous. She will act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with her God.”
“Ah yes, God. This is all about God after all. You seem quite loving and kind. But that God is capricious at best. He gives more to the rich and lets the poor suffer. No, you can’t be the godmother for my child.”
And poof. Mary disappeared.
The poor woman continued to wait. It was noon and the sun beat down upon her. She began to feel hot and weary. She was just about to stretch out for a nap when there was a rustling sound. She opened her eyes and saw before her a young, beautiful woman. The woman was naked, save for a few leaves placed strategically on her body.
“Hello, daughter,” the woman said. “I wish to be the godmother for your child. I will see that your child remains curious and grows to enjoy life. She will be denied nothing and experience all the pleasures and treasures life has to offer. Now, doesn’t that sound good? Wouldn’t you want that for your child? Just say “yes,” and it will be so.”
“Humm, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ve never experienced any pleasures. It would be nice for my child to have a different type of life. But who are you? How can I possibly be your child?”
“Why I am Eve,” the woman said. “I was the first mother in this world and birthed all of humankind you might say.”
“You are Eve? Well, now. I don’t know. I don’t know at all. They say you cursed us. Childbirth is harder because of you. You tempted Adam, and the Devil has your ear. No, you can’t be the godmother for my child.”
And poof she disappeared.
The rest of the day was uneventful. As the sun was beginning to set, the woman started to head home. She turned back when she heard a tapping. It was rhythmic almost like the sound of a drum. She looked at the road below her and saw a tall, but agile, old woman dancing up the hill, tapping her cane in time with her steps.
“Woman,” she said when she reached the top. “Have you found a godmother yet for your unborn child? If not, I’d like to volunteer. I will see that she is trained to become a great healer. She will be wealthy and respected. She will help many.”
The old woman’s face was weathered. Her eyes were dark and set deep in her head. There were wrinkles upon wrinkles on her skin. She looked as if she could be a hundred years old and yet her body moved like a child’s.
“I really like the sound of that,” the woman replied. “Can you tell me a bit more about who you are?” She looked into the crone’s face and, for just a moment, felt a shiver go down her spine.
“Yes, of course. I am death,” the old crone said matter-of-factly.
“Death. Death wants to be the godmother for my child?”
“Yes, and as you know I’m quite reliable and true to my word. I have much to teach and share with this child.” Her gaze was open. She even appeared quite hopeful.
“Let me think. Death comes to the rich and the poor, the old and the young, man and woman alike. Yes, that is certainly fair. Yes, Yes! You can be the godmother to my unborn child.”
A girl child was born not long thereafter. True to her word, Godmother Death became a doting figure in the child’s life. She saw that she was loved, supported and protected in childhood. When she became a young woman, she apprenticed with her Godmother - who taught her how to read. It was a skill rarely shared with women. The crone spent much time teaching her the ways of nature and life, and about herbs and midwifery. One day, Godmother Death took her into the forest and showed her how to find a special herb. It was an herb that could bring someone back to life from the very brink of death. Together they used the herb to create a potion. Only a few drops were needed to work this miracle.
Godmother Death said, “When you go into the room. Look first for me. If I am at the head of the sick person’s bed, give them the potion and they will recover. But listen carefully now. If I am at the foot of the bed, you can do nothing. This person belongs to me!”
“I understand,” the young healer said.
All went well for quite some time. The reputation of the young healer grew and grew. She became wealthy and comfortable with her life. Although as the child of a poor widow woman, she was never able to marry a man her equal.
One day, she was called to the Queen’s palace. The Queen had come down with a mysterious illness. The Court physician could do nothing, nor could any of the other doctors in the region. When the young healer entered the room, she saw the Queen tucked in bed, feverish and moaning. Godmother Death was at her feet. She shook her head silently.
“I’m sorry, your majesty,” the healer said. “I can tell, without even examining you, that you are too sick for me to help. I’m sorry you didn’t call for me earlier, but there is nothing I can do.”
The Queen motioned for her to come closer. She took the young healer’s hands in hers and began to wail. “Please, please, help me!” she said. “I must live. I have a son who still needs a mother. Isn’t there anything you can do? I will give you ½ of my queendom if you will only heal me.”
Well, the healer was young and born into a poor life. Without even thinking, she took hold of the bed and turned the head to the foot and the foot to the head. Godmother Death now found herself at the head of the bed. The girl gave the Queen the potion and she survived.
As you might image, Godmother Death was not happy. She took the healer aside and began to lecture her about the ways of life and death. She told her there would be a consequence if she continued to try to thwart death. Sadly, the young healer was too caught up with her newfound fortune, to even listen. She just reassured Godmother Death that she understood when she hadn’t heard a single word.
It wasn’t long before the young healer was called back to the palace. This time the prince had the same mysterious illness. When she entered the room, she saw Godmother Death standing at the foot of the bed. She turned to go away but the Queen stopped her.
“I can’t help,” the healer said quietly. “Sorry.”
The Queen took her two hands and knelt before her. “This is my only son. You must heal him! You may marry him if you can only bring him back to me!”
The healer looked at the prince. He wasn’t bad looking but she had no love for him. Then she thought how different her life would be as a princess. No one would look down at her for being a single woman. She’d finally be able to fit in. Then quickly, before she changed her mind, she took hold of the headboard and turned the head to the foot, the foot to the head. She gave the prince the potion and he sat up alert and very much alive.
This time Godmother Death drug her from the room. She struggled, but the old crone’s bony hands had a strong grip on her. She led her out of town into the forest and finally to the ruins of an old castle. They climbed down the crumbling stair steps into a large room filled with thousands and thousands of candles, burning and flickering in the darkness.
“Godmother Death, please let me go,” she cried. “I’m sorry. I don’t have time for this. I have a wedding to plan.”
Godmother Death laughed. “There is no wedding to plan and no kingdom to rule. The Queen is dead and the Prince not long behind.”
“No!” the healer screamed in pain.
“I told you there would be a consequence. This was their time to die. You only postponed it for a moment. There is a time and a place and a rhyme and a reason. You might not understand it, but it can’t be changed.”
The young healer continued to whimper.
“Do you know why I brought you here?” The young woman simply shook her head. “What if I told you this room, filled with all these candles, portrayed life on earth. As a healer, how might you explain it?”
“Well, I guess the candles that are big and tall, the ones with bright flames, represent the lives of those young and healthy. Is that right?”
“The small candles with the flickering flames are for the old or the very ill. Is that right?”
The young healer’s eyes began to dart around the room. “Where is my candle? Please show it to me,” she said. “I understand now. Please show me my candle!”
“People are not meant to know about the length of their life span.”
“Please, please! Just this once. Please show me my candle!”
Godmother Death pointed to the corner of the room where a solitary candle was placed on a small table. The candle, if you could still call it that, had burned until it was only a pool of wax with a flickering flame.
“This can’t be my candle. How can this possibly be my candle? How can we fix this? What can we do? What about the potion?”
Godmother Death said nothing.
“There must be a new candle here somewhere. I’ll light it from this old one and then I’ll have a nice long life.”
Godmother Death said, “Listen to me. For once, just listen to me. That is not advised. It will never work. I’m warning you.”
The young woman didn’t listen. She frantically searched through the dark room until she found a candle never used. She rushed to the table, looked at her godmother and tried to light the new candle from the old one.
“Nooooo!” screamed Godmother Death.
The candle went out. The young healer fell to the floor dead. Godmother Death looked at her goddaughter. A single tear fell from her eye. She sighed, picked up the new candle and placed it on the table. Almost immediately, the candle was lit. Its flame burning brightly. Godmother Death knew that somewhere there was a new child born into this world. Perhaps she would need a godmother.
As she walked slowly from the ruins you could hear her say, “There once was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do.”
I placed my retelling in the 14th century due to the story’s personification of death. The Black Death occurred during the mid to late 1300s. It impacted the lives of everyone, for over ½ the population died from this illness. The mysterious illness in this story might have been the Black Death.
Consequently, there were many widows and orphans left who were simply trying to survive. Poor widows in the Middle Ages were especially vulnerable to economic misfortune. Sometimes they were forced to give their children to nobility to live – a choice that would condemn the child to indentured servitude. It’s a choice, women have had to make over the ages, placing their children into the hands of the wealthy or into orphanages rather than starve. As you can see, finding a godmother was a much better option.
The story also contains a political message. The woman rejected Mary as godmother due to the inequality of God. This was a theme that mirrored the social unrest of the time. There were fewer workers after the Black Death than before it. Peasant revolts began to occur, due to unfair taxation. The serfs were finally able to bargain for their work and class distinctions were slowing starting to unravel. The image of death as an equal opportunity killer, as one who does not discriminate, fits with the ideals of the peasantry.
When I substituted the male characters for medieval female characters, even more became clear. Here’s what I discovered.
I began by replacing God and the Devil with the Biblical characters of Mary and Eve. Medieval women were often compared to Mary and Eve. Their view of women as Eve reflected the misogyny of the Middle Ages. It’s a comparison that continues this day in the psychoanalytic world and is detailed in the “Madonna Whore Complex.”
Finding Mary and Eve as characters in stories was common in hagiography. These biographical stories of the saints were more legend than history, filled with folktale motifs and common narratives. In fact, Mary replaced God in the Italian folktale, “The Just Man.”
Death as a woman, while not common, was not unknown in the Middle Ages. Blogger Terri Windling identifies stories from Slovenia, Moravia and Appalachia as having a godmother death. By the 1400’s, churches were painted with the “dance of death.” These images showed skeletons taking people from all ranks to their grave. This included kings and popes. This image appears today in the common Rider Waite version of the Death tarot card. An image common in the middle ages.
Women were the first healers and their role as midwives and physicians predominated in the early middle ages. However, with the rise of universities that shifted to become the purview of men. By the 1500s, women healers were called witches and often tried for witchcraft. If this story is older than the 1500’s, the doctor must have been a female healer.
Now that you’ve heard both versions of this story. I wonder how shifting the gender of these characters might have changed your perception of the tale. Only you can answer that question.
The crone as death highlights her role as teacher and mentor. She wisely accepts death as a natural part of life. She doesn’t rush it, nor does she ignore it. Instead she chooses to live each day in the present moment. To me, the crone is the more believable death for the crone knows that each day is sufficient unto itself. And that is the moral of this story. It’s a message for each of us and an important one to remember.
Illustrations: Hans Holbein (1497–1543), "The Dance of Death."Tarot card, "Death" from the Rider Waite deck.