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The Devil Marries Three Sisters: An Italian Folktale

23

April 19, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

 The Devil and the Disobedient Child

How the Devil Married Three Sisters was published in 1885 in a book of Italian folktales.

The stories were collected by Thomas Frederick Crane. I performed my own version of the story at Saturday’s StoryFest, a day-long festival sponsored by Story Arts of Minnesota. It is not often that I tell a story in verse, but the ballad form seemed suitable to the tale.

This is a Type 311 tale, as the folklorists would say, in which the clever heroine rescues her sisters. Type 311 is right next door to the Bluebeard stories (Type 312 and 312a), where the outcome is not so pleasant for the girls who come before.

Folktales themselves are in the public domain.

But my version of this story is not.

This ballad, and other folktales I have interpreted here such as The Woman Who Had No Shadow, are protected by copyright. (If you are interested in learning more about folktales, fair use and copyright, these articles by Heather Forest and Aaron Shephard are very useful.) If you are a storyteller and would like to perform this version of the story, or set it to music (not a personal talent of mine!) or base your own version upon it, please contact me for permission; my email address is on the About Me page of this blog.

The original version of this story can be found here. You can read the entire book of folktales – via the Gutenberg Project – here. There’s also an animated version – with a heavy metal soundtrack – and a prose poem by Lauren Simeone based on the story accompanied by an intriguing video collage. Finally, Jeff Gere does a shadow puppetry variant of Type 311 published by Italo Calvino known as Silver Nose, from which two illustrations above are taken. You can watch that on YouTube here.

I will go back to posts more appropriate for the typical blog reader’s attention span next week. But for now, we’ve kept Old Scratch waiting long enough….

Good and Evil: the Devil Tempting a Young Woman, 1832, Andre Jacques Victor

Good and Evil: the Devil Tempting a Young Woman, 1832, Andre Jacques Victor

The Devil Marries Three Sisters

In Tuscany, the devil knew
How to pass for gentry. So
Bored of stealing souls, one day he
Decided to marry.

A merchant had three daughters fair
And wanted to be gentry.
The devil wanted each of them
(And also each dowry).

At the edge of town, Old Scratch
Scratched out his intentions:
Drew in the dirt a hasty sketch
With one nasty talon.

A mansion rose out of the dirt.
It had a golden door.
The merchant did not think to ask
Where it had been before.

The devil came to court the first.
He was a handsome man
Whose manners were impeccable:
He fit the merchant’s plan.

He took the eldest home to wife,
Gave her a rose bouquet.
Pin these to your bosom, my dear
Before I leave today.

Here are the keys to every room
With each you may be free
Except the basement, for that door
Is only meant for me.

But Tuscan wives are spirited,
Reluctant to conform –
The merchant’s daughter touched the door
And it was strangely warm.

“Am I the mistress of this house?”
She found the proper key
And when she turned it in the latch,
What did the eldest see?

She saw no stairs: just an abyss
Of brimstone, fire and gore.
The flames of hell leapt up for her –
She shut the basement door.

She was the merchant’s daughter and
She had his ambition
All men are devils anyway
Best to feign submission.

(Technically, this is a 15th century illustration of  the conception of Merlin - but you get the idea.

Technically, this is a 15th century illustration of the conception of Merlin – but you get the idea.

And were you a good wife today?
“Of course I was, my lord.”
But look now, your bouquet is singed –
Did you open my door?

“No! no!” she cried, “You told me not
And all good wives obey.”
But Tuscan wives are curious
And for this they must pay.

As he grabbed her by the wrist,
One talon escaped retraction.
Her blood smeared on his sleeve; she fell
Into perdition.

Old Scratch went back to the merchant
In robes of rich carmine
Your eldest was in fragile health:
A very bad bargain.

He took the second home to wife,
Jasmine in her bouquet.
Pin these to your bosom, my dear
Before I leave today.

Here are the keys to every room
With each you may be free
Except the basement, for that door
I
s only meant for me.

But Tuscan wives are spirited,
Reluctant to conform –
The merchant’s daughter touched the door
And found it strangely warm.

“Am I the mistress of this house?”
She found the proper key
And when she turned it in the latch,
What did the second see?

She saw the scene the eldest had
And then saw one thing more:
Her older sister’s flaming hair –
She shut the basement door.

She was the merchant’s daughter, yes
But what could she control?
All men are devils anyway –
And all will steal your soul.

And were you a good wife today?
“Of course I was, my lord.”
But look now, your bouquet is singed –
Did you open my door?

“No! no!” she cried, “You told me not,
And all good wives obey.”
But Tuscan wives are curious
And for this they must pay.

He kicked her with one cloven foot
Right after he kissed her;
He shoved her roughly through the door
Go burn with your sister!

The Two Sisters Burning. Courtesy Jeff Gere.

The Two Sisters Burning. Courtesy Jeff Gere.

The devil went back to the merchant
In ermine cloak and hood
Your middle daughter was sickly. Could
The third be any good?

So came the youngest home to wife
With violets as bouquet
Now pin these flowers to your breast
Before I leave today.

The youngest knew her sisters both
Had always been healthy
She wished her father were content
Just to be wealthy.

Here are the keys to every room
With each you may be free
Except the basement, where the door
Is only meant for me.

Now she was very sensible,
The merchant’s last daughter
She took the violets off her blouse
And put them in water.

And then she took her keys in hand
Her duties to perform –
But when she touched the basement door
She found it strangely warm.

“I am the mistress of my home.”
She found the proper key
And when she turned it in the latch,
What did the youngest see?

No stairway into hell’s abyss –
Her sisters wreathed in flame –
And as she pulled them from the pit
They wailed their husband’s name.

She was the youngest, yes, and yet
Bold as a highwayman:
She hid her sisters from Old Scratch,
And conjured up a plan.

And were you a good wife today?
“Of course I was, my lord.”
The flowers fresh upon her breast
Showed she had kept her word.

Now here’s the strange part if you think
Incarnate evil is
Fixed in its horror, for that’s not
What this old folktale says.

It says that Satan fell in love –
Our gentleman so cruel
And from a calculating fiend
Became a doting fool.

The Devil in Love. Courtesy Jeff Gere.

The Devil in Love. Courtesy Jeff Gere.

She cooked and cleaned and met each need
Almost before he asked;
And so a month went by, and then
She had a little task.

“Dear husband take this gift I pray
Back to my father’s home
So he will not be missing me
While he is all alone.

Please put this trunk upon your back
And do not put it down
Till you have reached my father’s, on
The other side of town.”

The devil had bragged about his strength
All month, morning till night
Along with sundry other things
His bulk, his length, his might.

And so he hoisted up the trunk
Holding the first sister:
“And if you put it down, I’ll know –
I promise you, mister.”

He waited till the corner turned
To put his burden down
I see you sir! A voice cried out
Don’t lay it on the ground.

Satan the lovesick husband now
Knew he could not pretend
Shouldered that trunk across town
Then limped back home again.

She gave him such a warm welcome,
How human this pleasure…
Sure she was worth more by his side
Than Satan could measure.

She cooked and cleaned and met each need
Before he knew them there
So passed another month, and then
Another gift to bear

Please put this trunk upon your back
And do not put it down
Till you have reached my father’s, on
The other side of town.

So on his back the trunk did go,
Within, the second wife:
And if you put it down, I’ll cry
For the rest of my life.

He waited till the corner turned
To put that burden down
I see you sir! A voice cried out
Don’t put my trunk to ground.

Satan the doting husband was
Undone by every tear
He stumbled to the merchant’s house
Perhaps they should move nearer.

Still as before she served him well
And did each thing he asked
So passed another month, and then
She had another task.

Tomorrow morning take that trunk
Beneath the tapestry
To my dear father; and I will
Watch from our balcony.

It is the last gift I will send
But do not put it down
Till you have reached my father’s, on
The other side of town.

And she made sure the devil slept
Later that morn than she
And put a seamstress mannequin
Upon the balcony,

Dressed in her clothes. On top
Of that she placed a form
Used by the milliner, and then
The hat that kept her warm.

A Steampunk Devil Carrying the Third Sister. In this version the dowries apparently have their own trunks.

A Steampunk Devil Carrying the Third Sister, Courtesy Kerdersky at DeviantArt. In this version the two other dowries apparently have their own trunks.

Inside the trunk she put herself
And also each dowry
But still he saw her watching there
Upon the balcony.

And every time he thought to put
His heavy burden down
A voice inside called “Pick that up –
Don’t let my gift touch ground!

So he went home exhausted, with
Every bone aching
Expecting his compliant wife
To be home baking.

But there she was when he came home
Just where she was before
Come down, come down! The devil cried
And do what wives are for…

She did not move, did not reply
This made the devil mad.
He boxed her on the ears and then
He saw that he’d been had:

Her head fell off. And so he raced
Back to the merchant’s place
Where three wives on the balcony
Laughed right in his face

Best not, they say, in Tuscany
The devil disparage
But no more need women fear his
Appetite for marriage.

23 thoughts on “The Devil Marries Three Sisters: An Italian Folktale

  1. jmlevinton says:

    I really enjoyed this!

    Like

  2. I LOVED the ending to this little piece. It was so fun! Thanks so much for sharing! :-)

    Like

  3. Annecdotist says:

    Fabulous. Paula. I’d never heard of a 311 story but so beats Cinderella with its sibling rivalry and handsome prince rescue. Hurrah for Tuscan women!

    Like

    • Haha! Yes, it beats sibling rivalry. Interesting that there are types. Of course there are though, right? They would have to categorize them in some way.

      Like

    • Yes, hooray for Tuscan women! I do find it interesting how this story differs from that other temptation story, in which it is God who sets the “everything but” condition: “you can eat of every tree, except don’t touch this one.” The devil appears in both stories, but God only in one. I’m going to have to chew on the implications of that for a bit.

      Like

  4. I love this, Paula. I love old folktales but had never heard this one–thanks for introducing me to it. Also, like Anne, I’d never heard of the “types”, like this 311. Very cool. :-)

    Like

    • Yes, there’s some discussion in the folklore field about types versus motifs, and what’s best for classification and grouping, but I hardly think that matters to anybody but academics. Different groupings just bring out different comparisons to mull over. In the Aarne-Thompson classification, this actually fits under fairy tales, which seem to be anything with a supernatural component that does not have an overtly religious theme. Types 300-399 have to do with “supernatural opponents.” Then there’s your supernatural or enchanted relatives (400-459), your supernatural tasks (460-499), your supernatural helpers (500-559), magic items (560-649), stories of supernatural power or knowledge (650-699), and a general catch-all for “other stories of the supernatural.” The fairy tale section comes after animal stories (anthropomorphic animals, of course) and before religious tales. Interestingly, the devil shows up both in fairy tales AND religious stories.

      Like

  5. jan says:

    I love Italian folk-tales! So much fun. Thanks for posting this one!

    Like

  6. Charli Mills says:

    Fabulous! I love how in Medieval literature the Italians had more influence on our stories than we give credit.

    Like

    • Oh, those Italians. When I was looking for pictures for this story I came across a film from the 1960’s called The Devil in Love which has Mickey Rooney in it, of all people. He seems to be the sidekick, not the one in love. Beelzebub sends him and another, more handsome devil, back up to earth to stop a peace treaty from happening. Apparently it is considered a little comic gem, but I’ve yet to find a copy of it with subtitles. The first three minutes seem promising though:

      Like

  7. I’m hitting the all-too-easy to use Like button for the ART!!! Once again, you rule with your use of art, Paula!

    Like

  8. Great post; I really enjoyed it. The fairy tale types were interesting, too. Are there any types before 300?

    Like

  9. somemaid says:

    What a wonderful tale, I love folk tales, always so rich and full of meaning.

    Like

  10. cashorali says:

    This is a very unusual folktale. There are a few where the devil is outwitted and defeated, but not a lot where he’s rehabilitated. I very much appreciate the way this speaks to integrating the more shadowy elements of the personality– thank you for this. And yes, great graphics as well–

    Like

  11. […] a blog post about “The Devil Marries Three Sisters,” Paula Reed Nancarrow includes this 15th century image, not from that tale, but illustrating the […]

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