The Devil’s Grandmother

Do supernatural beings have family trees? If Jesus can be the son of God, can Satan also have a nuclear family? Within the Brothers Grimm collected fairytales there appears a most fascinating character; the Grandmother of the Devil.

Curiously, she is a sympathetic rather than an evil character. Which makes an interesting moral point, that evil is a choice, rather than a genetic or conditioned trait. Her role is to undermine his work, by helping those who he is trying to lure. She also has the delightful effect of making the Devil seem like a mischievous youth rather than a terrifying supernatural force.

In The Devil and his Grandmother (from Grimm’s complete fairy tales), the Devil tempts three deserting soldiers with promises of gold. He appears when they are starving and close to death. Which is an interesting device, suggesting that the Devil, or temptation is most prominent when we are desperate. The Grandmother figure appears in many stories, to give advice to a disadvantaged protagonist. The Devil’s Grandmother is completely¬†altruistic, she gives advice without asking for anything in return, unlike the Devil, who appears sympathetic, and offers help, but demands a payment later on. The Devil charges an extortionate rate of interest for his help, he will take a soul for eternity as payment for a minor service. In The Devil and his Grandmother, the soldiers complacently think they will be able to outwit the Devil, and wrangle their way out of the deal. But it is only with the kindness of the Grandmother that they are able to defeat him.

The Devil’s Grandmother also appears in Grimm’s The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs. Here she helps the hero, who is ‘The Child of Good Fortune’ (as in lucky, rather than rich-birth). He is a faultless youth, so she helps him by stealing the golden hairs off the Devil’s head. She takes pity on him, using her discretion and seeing his goodness, but the villains in the story, a band of robbers also take pity on him, because he is so harmless and naive. I like this idea of mixing up the good and evil characters, normally they are very black and white in fairytales, so the device of having a bloodthirsty gang of thieves showing mercy is surprising. It does raise a moral point that people are not intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather, they commit good or bad deeds. The youth is almost a Christ-like figure, and it is also important to note that he survives his trip to the underworld by doing kind deeds for the tormented.

In modern Christian thinking, the Devil is generally seen as an abstract, rather than a being who might physically appear. But just as God could be regarded as ‘good’ personified, the Devil could be seen as ‘evil’ personified, so while we may not be looking out for a fawn like creature with a pitchfork, we should still be wary of evil lying in wait to tempt us.


Link to Daniel Barenboim playing Tchaikovsky


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