Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing Journal 5: Rohrich's "German Devil Tales and Devil Legends" (1970)

Lutz Rohrich in “German Devil Tales and Devil Legends” (1970) suggests that devil legends have stopped being part of current folklore, and instead have passed into historical material and that contrary to the literary tradition, the folk tradition has a more visual idea of the devil. Rohrich states that the devil of folktale is often recognized by his visual characteristics which come first in the late middle ages; horns, hook nose, clawed or cloven hoofs (23). He then brings up whether the devil of the middle ages is the same as the folk devil of today and says that these legends trace back to medieval sermons in which the lay people were warned against sinning for the devil would punish them. He goes on to illustrate that this time period is also when the idea of a devil’s pact was developed, in part due to the story of Dr. Faust but also states that the devil pact is found in tales and jokes where the devil is seen as a trickster hero. He then goes on to list the number of Grimm’s fairy tales in which this type of character appears, stating that the Grimm brothers were writing down older German legends and folktales. Perhaps one of Rohrich’s most important questions is whether this trickster devil has any connection with the tempter devil seen in the Bible and medieval theology (27)to which he says that while the trickster devil was present in many saint legends, the legends of the devil associated with pagan demons has its roots in Nordic legends and the character of Loki (29). Rohrich’s argument is that the devil is not a homogeneous figure and that so far there has been no attempt to “compile an intellectual history of devil tales (32). The intended audience is one that is not familiar with the subject matter as he does not refer to the tales in their original language or make references that an unfamiliar reader would have a hard time with.


This article helped to clarify several points with me in regards to my project; the first that I wanted to focus on the British literature tradition, as otherwise the project would be too broad. While at first glance this narrowing of topic would seem to exclude this article and its subject matter, it in fact does not because of the Nordic material that would have been familiar to Anglo Saxons. While the written tales of the Grimm brothers comes too late to be included in my research, the mentions of Loki and the similarities to the devil, as well as the mention of the devil in medieval sermons gives me more avenues to explore in my research. While Rohrich’s research focuses on the tales of Germany, it is interesting that the physical descriptions of the devil in the middles ages are the same as in England. So, while the particulars in this article are not relevant to my research, it did help me set up better parameters for my research.

Rohrich does not forward any scholars, instead forwarding other devil tales, such as seen in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, German folktales and the tales of the Grimm brothers. His largest move was to point out the gap in current scholarship, mainly that there has never been a comprehensive look at how devil tales and legends are portrayed throughout the historical ages. His approach is to look at specific descriptions of the devil, what the source of these descriptions are and what they say about the time period in which they appeared. He focuses mainly on the middle ages and then jumps forward to the 1800s with the Grimm’s tales, showing how the idea of the devil has been forwarded from oral tradition in folktales into the literary one. His approach as he describes it is a cultural-historical one that focuses not only on early and literary sources but also the “cultural-historical incidents in the tales themselves” (33). He ends his article with not only pointing out the major gap in the research, but also by stating a specific question that should be addressed- “Why does man relate one thing in a legend, another in an anecdote, and yet another in a tale?” (33). This idea of why certain information gets forwarded a certain way had not occurred to me, and I found that it offers another avenue into my own project.

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