Folk-Tales of the Magyars, The UNDER CONSTRUCTION | Annotated Tale

Stephen the Murderer

THERE was once, I don't know where, over seven times seven countries, or even beyond that, a very, very rich farmer, and opposite to him lived another farmer just as rich. One had a son and the other a daughter. These two farmers often talked over family matters together at their gates, and at last arranged that their children should marry each other, so that in case the old people died the young people would be able to take possession of the farms. But the young girl could not bear the young man, although he was very fond of her. Then her parents threatened to disinherit her if she did not marry as she was bid, as they were very wishful for the marriage to take place.

               On the wedding morning, when they arrived at church, and were standing before the altar, the bride took the wedding ring and dashed it on the floor before the clergyman, saying, "Here, Satan, take this ring; and, if ever I bear a child to this man, take it too!" In a moment the devil appeared, snatched up the ring, and vanished. The priest, seeing and hearing all that was done, declined to proceed with the ceremony, whereupon the fathers remonstrated with him, and declared that if he did not proceed he would lose his living. The wedding thereupon was duly celebrated.

               As time went by the farmers both died; and the young folks, who couldn't bear each other before, at last grew very fond of each other, and a handsome boy was born. When he was old enough he went to school, where he got on so well that before long his master could teach him no more. He then went to college, where he did the same as at school, so that his parents began to think of him taking holy orders. About this time his father died; and he noticed that every night when he came home from the college that his mother was weeping: so he asked her why she wept. "Never mind me, my son," said she; "I am grieving over your father." "But you never cared much for him," said he; "cheer up, for I shall soon be a priest." "That's the very thing I'm weeping over," said his mother; "for just when you will be doing well the devils will come for you, because when I was married to your father I dashed the wedding-ring on the ground, saying, 'Here, Satan, take this ring; and if ever I bear a child to this man take it too.' One fine day, then, you will be carried off by the devil in the same way as the ring." "Is this indeed true, mother?" said the student. "It is indeed, my son." With that he went off to the priest, and said, "Godfather, are these things which my mother tells me concerning her wedding true?" "My dear godson," replied the priest, "they are true; for I saw and heard all myself." "Dear godfather, give me then at once holy candles, holy water, and incense." "Why do you want them, my son?" asked the priest. "Because," replied the student, "I mean to go to hell at once, after that lost ring and the deed of agreement." "Don't rush into their hands," said the priest; "they will come for you soon enough." But the more the priest talked the more determined was the student to set off at once for the infernal regions.

               So off he went, and travelled over seven times seven countries. One evening he arrived at a large forest, and, as darkness set in, he lost his way and roamed about hither and thither looking for some place to rest; at last he found a small cottage where an old woman lived. "Good evening, mother," said he. "Good luck has brought you here, my son," said she. "What are you doing out here so late?" "I have lost my way," replied the student, "and have come here to ask for a night's lodging." "I can give you lodging, my son, but I have a murderous heathen son, who has destroyed three hundred and sixty-six lives, and even now is out robbing. He might return at any moment, and he would kill you; so you had better go somewhere else and continue your way in peace, and mind you take care not to meet him."

               "Whether he kill me or not," said the student, "I shall not stir an inch." As the old woman could not persuade him to go he stayed. After midnight the son returned, and shouted out loudly under the window, "Have you got my supper ready?" He then crept in on his knees, for he was so tall that he could not enter otherwise. As they sat at table he suddenly saw the student. "Mother, what sort of a guest is that?" said he. "He's a poor tramp, my son, and very tired." "Has he had anything to eat?" "No; I offered him food, but he was too tired to eat." "Go and wake him, and say, 'Come and eat'; because whether he eat or whether he let the food alone he will repent it."

               "Hollo!" said the student, "what is the matter?"

               "Don't ask any questions," replied the old woman; "but come and eat." The student obeyed, and they sat down to supper. "Don't eat much," said the old woman's son, "because you will repent it if you do eat and you will repent it if you don't." While they were eating the old woman's son said, "Where are you going, mate--what is your destination?" "Straight to hell, among the devils," quoth the student.

               "It was my intention to kill you with a blow; but now that I know where you are going I will not touch you. Find out for me what sort of a bed they have prepared for me in that place."

               "What is your name?"

               "My name," said he, "is Stephen the Murderer."

               In the morning, when they awoke, Stephen gave the student a good breakfast, and showed him which way to go. On he travelled till at length he approached the gates of hell. He then lighted his incense, sprinkled the holy water, and lighted the holy candles. In a very short time the devils began to smell the incense, and ran out, crying, "What sort of an animal are you? Don't come here! Don't approach this place; or we will leave it at once!"

               "Wherever you go," said the student, "I tell you I will follow you; for, on such and such a date, you carried off from the church floor my mother's wedding-ring; and if you don't return it and cancel the agreement, and promise me that I will have no more trouble from you, I will follow you wherever you go." "Don't come here," cried they; "stop where you are, and we will get them for you at once."

               They then blew a whistle and the devils came hastily out from all directions, so many you could not count them, but they could not find the ring anywhere. They sounded the whistle again, and twice as many came as before, but still the ring was not to be found. They then whistled a third time, and twice as many more came. One fellow came limping up, very late. "Why don't you hurry," cried the others; "don't you see that a great calamity has happened? The ring can't be found. Turn out everybody's pockets, and on who ever it is found throw him into the bed of Stephen the Murderer." "Wait a moment," cried the lame one, "before you throw me into Stephen the Murderer's bed. I would rather produce three hundred wedding-rings than be thrown into that place:" whereupon he at once produced the ring, which they threw over the wall to the student, together with the agreement, crying out that it was cancelled.

               One evening the student arrived back at Stephen the Murderer's. The latter was out robbing. After midnight, as usual, he returned, and when he saw the student he woke him, saying, "Get up, let's have something to eat! And have you been to hell?"

               "I have." "What have you heard of my bed?" "We should never have got the ring," said the student, "if the devils had not been threatened with your bed." "Well," said Stephen, "that must be a bad bed if the devils are afraid of it."

               They got up the next morning, and the student started for home. Suddenly it struck Stephen the Murderer that as the student had made himself happy he ought to do as much for him. So he started after the student, who, when he saw him coming, was very much afraid lest he should be killed. In a stride or two Stephen overtook the student. "Stop, my friend; as you have bettered your lot, better mine, so that I may not go to that awful bed in hell."

               "Well then," said the student, "did you kill your first man with a club or a knife?" "I never killed anybody with a knife," said Stephen, "they have all been killed with a club." "Have you got the club you killed the first man with? Go back and fetch it."

               Stephen took one or two strides and was at home. He then took the club from the shelf and brought it to the student; it was so worm-eaten that you could not put a needle-point on it between the holes. "What sort of wood is this made of?" asked the student. "Wild apple-tree," replied Stephen. "Take it and come with me," said the student, "to the top of the rock." On the top of the rock there was a small hill; into this he bade him plant the club. "Now, uncle Stephen, go down under the rock, and there you will find a small spring trickling down the face of the stone. Go on your knees to this spring and pray, and, creeping on your knees, carry water in your mouth to this club, and continue to do so till it buds; it will then bear apples, and when it does you will be free from that bed."

               Stephen the Murderer began to carry the water to the club, and the student left him, and went home. He was at once made a priest on account of his courage in going to hell; and after he had been a priest for twenty-five years they made him pope, and this he was for many years.

               In those days it was the rule--according to an old custom--for the pope to make a tour of his country, and it so happened that this pope came to his journey's end, on the very rock upon which the club had been planted. He stopped there with his suite, in order to rest. Suddenly one of the servants saw a low tree on the top of the rock, covered with beautiful red apples. "Your holiness," said he to the pope, "I have seen most beautiful red apples, and if you will permit me I will go and gather some." "Go," said the pope, "and if they are so very beautiful bring some to me." The servant approached the tree; as he drew near he heard a voice that frightened him terribly saying, "No one is allowed to pluck this fruit except him who planted the tree." Off rushed the servant to the pope, who asked him if he had brought any apples.

               "Your holiness, I did not even get any for myself," gasped the servant, "because some one shouted to me so loudly that I nearly dropped; I saw no one, but only heard a voice that said, 'No one is allowed to pluck this fruit but the man who planted the tree.'"

               The pope began to think, and all at once he remembered that he had planted the tree when he was a lad. He ordered the horses to be taken out of his carriage, and, with his servant and his coachman, he set off to the red apple-tree. When they arrived, the pope cried out, "Stephen the Murderer, where are you?" A dried-up skull rolled out, and said, "Here I am, your holiness; all the limbs of my body dropped off whilst I was carrying water, and are scattered all around; every nerve and muscle lies strewn here; but, if the pope commands, they will all come together." The pope did so, and the scattered members came together into a heap.

               The servant and the coachman were then ordered to open a large, deep hole, and to put the bones into it, and then cover all up, which they did. The pope then said mass, and gave the absolution, and at that moment Stephen the Murderer was delivered from the dreadful bed in hell. The pope then went back to his own country, where he still lives, if he has not died since.


Kriza, xviii.

               The Hungarians have had a Dr. Faust in the person of Professor Hatvani, but in his case he got the best of the bargain; see A Magyar Fauszt, by Maurus Jókai. The Hungarian professor is an historical personage, and only resembles Dr. Faust in having a compact with the devil.

               Lad. Arany traces a resemblance between this tale and one in Benfey's Pantschatantra, where it is related how a poor Brahmin, in reward for his long penitence, has his bones thrown into the sacred waters of the Ganges.

               There is a curious Finnish story which resembles this tale, "Ennustukset" (Predictions), from Ilomantsi in S. ja T. ii. 64-72. Two wise men (seers) were out walking, and came near a house where a ewe was just in the throes of parturition. The younger man wished the elder (and chief) to help it. "Why should I?" replied he, "a wolf will eat the lamb." "It is very sad; but still we ought to help the poor sheep." In a moment the lamb was born. Just then the cries of the mistress of the house were heard, for she was in travail. The young man again begged his companion to use his power. "Well! I will help her," said the old seer; "but would it be kind, for the boy, when born, will murder his father?" He gave his assistance, and in a moment the child was born. The master of the house, however, had overheard the conversation, and told it to his wife, who was horrified at the news. Upon talking it over, they decided to let the lamb and child live, as the men's words were most likely of no importance. In the autumn, at the feast of Keyri (the cattle-god), the lamb was slain and made into Keyri soup, according to the old custom. The broth was put on the table, and the meat in the window to cool; [1] and the couple laughed at the words of the men. After the broth was finished they went for the meat, and lo! it was all scattered on the ground, and a wolf was devouring the last pieces at its leisure.

               They were terrified, and cried, "Well, then! the men's words were true." The man then snatched the child out of its cradle, and was about to cut its throat, when the woman cried, "Do not kill our own child! Let us fasten it on a plank, and put it to sea, so that it may die in that way." And so they did. Tossed by wind and waves, the child chanced to come to the shore near a monastery, where a peasant found him and took him to the abbot, who brought him up. When he had grown up, he got tired of living there, and was sent to the mainland. He wandered on and on till he came to a house. The mistress only was in, the master being in the wood. Here the lad was engaged to go and look after the turnips, as some thieves had been stealing them; and the mistress gave him a bow and arrows, with strict orders to shoot any one who came. This just suited the lad, who went and hid himself behind a large stone in the middle of the field. Before long a man came over the fence and filled his arms with turnips. The lad drew his bow and shot, and the man fell. The lad returned home, and told what he had done; and the mistress said that she was glad that the thief had perished. They then waited for the master's return, but as he did not come, they went to look for him, and found that the lad had killed him. The lad stayed with the woman, and after a time married her, and all went well till one day they went to the bath [2] together; then she saw a red stripe on the man's chest, and asked, "What is this?" "I don't know," replied he, "I've had it ever since I was born." "Where were you born?" asked the woman. He then told her all he knew; and, to their horror, i they found out they were mother and son. The man at once set off to the wise men, to know what to do, and how to be forgiven. On the way he met a monk, with a book under his arm, and said, "I've killed my father, and married my mother! How can I be forgiven?" The monk looked through his book and said, "Poor man! your sins can never be forgiven; they are too awful." The man could not contain himself when he heard this, and struck the monk such a blow that he died.

               He then went on and met an older monk and told him all. He looked through his book and said "There is no forgiveness." He then killed this monk also. Going on he met a third monk with books under his arms, and cried, "I've killed my father, and married my mother, and murdered two old men who said there was no forgiveness. What do you think?" The old man looked through his books, thought a little, and said, "There is no crime so great but that it can be forgiven when man truly repents. You must go to a rock and dig a well in it. Wait till the water rises. And your mother must sit beside it with a black sheep in her arms until its wool becomes white." When the man heard this he thanked the monk, and returned and told his mother all. So they went to a rock, and the man began to dig with a chisel; and the woman sat beside him with the sheep in her arms. He worked for a long time, but with no success. Now the rock was close to the road, and good and bad passed by. One day a gentleman drove past gaily, the horse-bells tinkling as he went; he asked the man what he was doing, and was told all. "Who and what are you?" said the man. "O! I am a very clever man," replied the other. "I can make wrong right, and right wrong. I am going to the assizes, where I will help you if you pay me." This enraged the man, because he had to work so hard, whilst the other lived by trickery. Whilst he grumbled his old anger flared up, and he struck the gentleman in the forehead with his chisel and killed him. In a moment the rock opened and there was a well, and the black sheep became white. This they were exceedingly glad to see, but the man did not know what to do about killing the gentleman. So he went to the old monk again and told him all. "Well!" said the monk, "that's better. He has sinned much more against God than you; therefore your time of repentance has been shortened. Go in peace." Thus the sinners escaped judgment and continued to live together in peace. The one as mother, the other as son. So much for that! (The ordinary ending of Finnish tales.)

               Another Finnish story, "Antti Puuhaara" (Andrew Tree Twig), S. ja. T. ii. 100, begins much in the same way, only in that case the child is to be heir of a rich merchant who happened to be in the house at the time and overheard all. He does his best to prevent the prediction coming true; which, however, spite of all, is fulfilled. Cf. Magyarische Sagen von Mailáth. "Die Brüder." Also "Die Thaten des Bogda Gesser Châns," eine ostasiatische Heldensage aus dem mongolischen übersetzt von J. J. Schmidt, Petersburg 1839. And Folk-lifvet i Skytts härad i Skåne wid början af detta århundrade, Barndomsminnen utgifna af Nicolovius, Lund. 1847. "Rike Pehr Krämare." Also Dasent, "Rich Peter the Pedlar"; Grimm, "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs"; and Sagas from the Far East, in which the king fears when he hears the hermit's prophecy of his son's future, p. 268.

               The bed that the devils so much dreaded occurs in the Polish tale, "Madey," Naake's Slavonic Tales, p. 220. A merchant being lost in a wood promises an evil spirit that he will give him something that he had not seen in his house if he will set him in the right road. This something turns out to be a son born in the merchant's absence. When the boy grows up he sets out to get the bond from the devil that his father gave when lost in the wood. As the lad goes on his journey he comes to the hut of a robber of the name of Madey. He had murdered his father, and only spared his mother to prepare his food. Here, as in the Magyar story, the lad is spared on condition that he finds out what sort of bed is prepared for the robber in hell. The lad enters hell by means of holy water and incense, and the lame demon Twardowski [3] is threatened with Madey's bed if he does not give up the bond, which he is loth to do. This at once produces the desired effect, and Madey was so horrified at the lad's account of the bed that he struck his murderous club into the ground, and vowed he would wait till the lad returned as a bishop. Years afterwards, when the little boy had become a bishop, he found a beautiful apple tree and an old man kneeling at its foot. The tree was the robber's club, the old man Madey. As Madey makes his confession apple after apple becomes a dove and flies heavenward, till at last he confesses his father's murder, and then the last disappears; and, as the bishop pronounces the absolution, Madey crumbles to dust.

               See, also, Svenska Folksägner, af H. Hofberg, Stockholm, 1882, p. 48. "Ebbe Skammelsson was a knight who was engaged to the beauteous Malfrid of Tiraholm. As they both were yet young, the knight set out for the Holy Land, promising to return in seven years. Soon after Ebbe's departure Malfrid's father died, and the maid remained with her mother. Years rolled on, but Ebbe did not return; and as the maid began to fade away, her mother promised her to another, thinking Ebbe must be dead. There was a splendid wedding; and just as the guests sat down to the table, a knight in golden armour galloped up to the house. The bride turned pale beneath her crown, and the mother, who recognised Ebbe, rushed out and reminded him that the seven years were past, and he was too late. In wild rage he struck off the lady's head; and then, dashing into the wedding hall, slew the bride and bridegroom. Filled with horror and remorse at his own deeds, he vaulted on to his horse, and rode into the wild woods. There he roamed in agony and despair. The pope's indulgence was obtained at the holy father's feet, but not peace; so, returning to the home of his old love, he begged the judge to sentence him to the severest punishment. After long deliberation the council determined that he should be loaded with the heaviest irons, and should pass a day and a night on each of the three hundred and sixty-five islands in Bolmen. This was carried out; and in his little boat he dragged himself from isle to isle. At length he reached the last, and crawled into a barn. His sad fate had made a deep impression on the people, and a minstrel wrote a song, which, a witch said, so soon as Ebbe heard, his irons would fall off and he would die. As he lay in the barn, a servant, who went to milk the cows, began to sing, 'Knight Ebbe's Song.' He listened with breathless attention, and then cried out: 'One part is true, one part is false.' The girl fled in terror. Soon the villagers gathered round to know who he was. He dragged himself to the hill, and, telling who he was, begged to be taken to the churchyard. Now, between the village of Angelstad and the church there is a large stone: mounting this, Ebbe cried, 'Am I worthy to rest in consecrated ground? If so, let it be....' At that moment the irons dropped off, and he died. The people buried him in the path, outside the north wall of the church; but the wall fell down each night, until it was so built as to include the outlaw's grave. The crosses on the roof of the parish church are said to be made of Ebbe's fetters, which for a long time hung inside the sacred building." Cf. J. Allvin, Beskrifning öfver Vestbo härad, p. 147. The same story, with some slight difference, is current in Halland. [4] A comparison between this and the wild Finnish story is not without interest, as shewing the humanising influence which has toned down the rude and rugged teaching of the early ages.

               Cf. Campbell, Tales of the Western Highlands, p. 19: "The Inheritance."

               Baring Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. "The Mountain of Venus," p. 213.

               Grimm, vol. ii. p. 366. "The Three Green Twigs."

               Merényi, Tales from the Banks of the Danube, vol. ii. p. 7, in Hungarian.

               There is an interesting Lapp variant, "Fattiggutten, Fanden og Guldbyen." Friis, p. 161.


[1] Such a window as they had in old times: a hole with sliding door or shutter. Vide Retzius, p. 110.

[2] The bath-house is a separate building with a stove in the corner covered with large stones which become red hot and then water is thrown upon them which fills the house with steam. Round the sides are shelves where the bathers (both sexes) recline, and whip themselves with branches of birch on which the leaves have been left to die. Retzius, p. 119. Cf. also Land of the Midnight Sun, vol. ii. p. 207.

[3] A John Twardowski is said to have been a doctor of medicine in the university of Cracow, who, like Dr. Faust, signed a contract in his own blood with the devil. He is said to have been wont to perform his incantations on the mountains of Krzemionki, or on the tumulus of Krakus, the mythic founder of Cracow. The demon was to do all the magician bade him and to have no power over him until he met him at Rome, where he took good care not to go. Whether this gentleman is supposed to have ultimately become the lame fiend I know not. See Slavonic Folk-Lore, by Rev. W. S. Lach-Szyrma, in Folk-Lore Record, vol. iv. p. 62.

[4] A division of South Sweden washed by the Skaggerack and Kattegat.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Stephen the Murderer
Tale Author/Editor: Jones, W. Henry & Kropf, Lewis L.
Book Title: Folk-Tales of the Magyars, The UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Book Author/Editor: Jones, W. Henry & Kropf, Lewis L.
Publisher: Elliot Stock
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1889
Country of Origin: Hungary
Classification: ATU 756A: The Self-Righteous Hermit

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