translated and/or edited by
D. L. Ashliman
Link to the Grimm Brothers' version of this tale: Bearskin.
Link to the Grimm Brothers' tale in German: Der Bärenhäuter.
Link to the original German version of this tale: Der Teufel als Schwager.
A soldier, having deserted his regiment in the thick of battle, took refuge in the woods. However, the foes of war were soon replaced by the enemies cold, thirst, and hunger. With nowhere to turn for help, he was about to surrender to the powers of despair, when without warning an awful spirit appeared before him. He offered the poor soldier great wealth, if he would but serve this uncanny master for seven years. Seeing no other escape from his misery, the soldier agreed.
The terms of the pact were quickly stated: For seven years the soldier was to wear only a bearskin robe, both day and night. He was to say no prayers. Neither comb nor shears were to touch his hair and beard. He was not to wash, nor cut his nails, nor blow his nose, nor even wipe his behind. In return, the spirit would provide him with tobacco, food, drink, and an endless supply of money.
The soldier, who by his very nature was not especially fond of either prayers or of cleanliness, entered into the agreement. He took lodgings in a village inn, and discovered soon enough that his great wealth was ample compensation for his strange looks and ill smell.
A nobleman frequented this inn. Impressed by Bearskin's lavish and generous expenditures, he presented him with a proposal. "I have three beautiful daughters," he said. "If the terms are right, you may choose any one of them for a bride."
Bearskin named a sum that was acceptable to the nobleman, and the two set forth to the palace to make the selection. The two older daughters made no attempt to hide their repugnance of the strange suitor, but the youngest unhesitatingly accepted her father's will. Bearskin formalized the betrothal by removing a ring from his own finger and twisting it into two pieces. One piece he gave to his future bride; the other he kept. Saying that soon he would return, he departed.
The seven years were nearly finished, so a short time later Bearskin did indeed come back for his bride. Now freshly bathed, neatly shorn, elegantly dressed, and riding in a luxurious carriage, he was a suitor worthy of a princess. Identifying himself with his half of the twisted ring, he claimed his bride.
Beside themselves with envy, and furious that they had squandered their rights to this handsome nobleman, one of the bride's older sisters hanged herself from a tree and the other one drowned herself in a well. Thus the devil gained two souls for the one that he had lost.
One evening a traveling journeyman came to an inn, and because he had been strenuously walking for several days in a row, he decided to rest a few days. It didn't bother him that his purse would not cover his costs.
The innkeeper got wind of this, and one evening he said, "My good friend, you are now well rested. Be so good as to be on your way early in the morning. Here is the bill for what you owe me."
This brought both chills and fever to journeyman, who asked the innkeeper if he at least could not wait until tomorrow to be paid. "Tomorrow," he said, "is one more day."
"Good," said the innkeeper, "but be careful that you don't end up in the Black Tower Inn. Around here that's where folks stay who eat and drink more than their purses will cover."
As soon as the innkeeper had left, the journeyman threw himself onto his bed, but fear and worry kept him awake the entire night. Then suddenly a black figure approached his bed, and the journeyman recognized him as the devil for sure.
He said, "Fear not, my dear companion, if you'll provide the sausage, I'll bring the drinks. Lend me a hand, and I'll help you out of your predicament."
"Doing what?" asked the journeyman.
"Just stay here in this inn for seven years," said the devil. "I'll keep you out of debt and provide you with everything you need. Afterward you'll be even better off, and you'll have money like the leaves on trees. In return for this you must neither wash yourself, nor comb your hair, nor cut your hair or nails."
"That job is worth the pay," thought the journeyman, and he entered the agreement without further hesitation.
When the innkeeper appeared the next morning, the journeyman paid him every last penny that was due, and he still had a good surplus for future bills.
The journeyman stayed at the inn for years and days, spending money as though it were sand on the beach. But he became as wild as the night, and no one wanted to look at him. One fine morning a merchant who lived nearby came to the inn. He had three strikingly beautiful daughters. He had come to tell his sorrows to the innkeeper, for he had badly miscalculated in a business deal and did not know how he was going to get out of the difficulty.
"Listen," said the innkeeper. "There's help for you here. A strange fellow has been living upstairs in my rented room for more than six years now. He lets himself go completely, and looks as bad as sin, but he has money like hay, and is a free-spender. Give him a try. Anyway, I've long noticed that he often stares at your house. Who knows, perhaps he's got his eye on one of your daughters.
This advice made good sense to the merchant. He went upstairs to the journeyman, and the two of them soon struck a deal. The journeyman would pay the merchant's debts, and the merchant would give one of his daughters to the journeyman in marriage.
However, when they went to the three daughters, and the father explained the situation to them, the oldest one ran away, crying out, "Phooey, father! What sort of a monster is this that you've brought home? I'd sooner jump into water than to marry him."
The second daughter did no better. She cried out, "Phooey, father! What sort of a creature is this that you've brought home? I'd sooner hang myself than to marry him."
But the third and youngest daughter said, "He must be a good man, father, if he wants to rescue you. I'll take him."
She turned her eyes to the floor and did not look at him, but he took a great liking to her, and the wedding was set.
The seven years that the devil had demanded were now past. On the morning of the wedding day a splendid coach, sparkling with gold and precious stones, drove up to the merchant's house. Out jumped the journeyman, who had now become a fine young nobleman.
The bride breathed a sigh of relief, and there was endless rejoicing. The wedding party went to the church in a long procession, for the merchant and the innkeeper had invited all their relatives.
Only the happy bride's two older sisters did not participate. They angrily took their own lives, the one at the end of a rope, the other in water. And as the bridegroom was leaving the church, he saw the devil again, the first time in seven years. He was sitting on a roof, laughing with satisfaction, and saying:
Partner, I did better than you,
You got one, and I got two.
As soon as he had spoken these words a little devil rose up at once in front of him and said, "Hail, soldier, what do you wish? Did you just now not say that you wished to become one of our servants? Why, soldier, come up and be hired; we will pay you well."
"What is the work?"
"Oh, the work is easy enough: for fifteen years you must not shave, you must not have your hair cut, you must not blow your nose, and you must not change your garb. If you serve this service, then we will go to the king, who has three daughters. Two of them are mine, but the third shall be yours."
"Very well," said the soldier, "I will undertake the contract; but I require in return to get anything my soul hankers after."
"It shall be so; be at peace; we shall not be in default."
"Well, let it befall at once. Carry me at once into the capital and give me a pile of money; you know yourself how little of these goods a soldier ever gets."
So the little devil dashed into the lake, got out a pile of gold, and instantaneously carried the soldier into the great city, and all at once he was there!
"What a fool I have been!" said the soldier. "I have not done any service, no work, and I now have the money!" So he took a room, never cut his hair, never shaved, never wiped his nose, never changed his garb, and he lived on and grew wealthy, so wealthy he did not know what to do with his money. What was he to do with his silver and gold? "Oh, very well, I will start helping the poor; possibly they may pray for my soul." So the soldier began distributing alms to the needy, to the right and to the left, and he still had money over, however much he gave away! His fame spread over the whole kingdom, came to the ears of all.
So the soldier lived for fourteen years, and on the fifteenth year the tsar's exchequer gave out. So he summoned the soldier. So the soldier came to him unwashed, unshaved, uncombed, with his nose unwiped and his dress unchanged.
"Health, your majesty!"
"Listen, soldier. You, they say, are good to all folks; will you lend me some money? I have not enough to pay my troops. If you will I will make you a general at once."
"No, your Majesty, I do not wish to be a general; but if you will do me a favor, give me one of your daughters as my wife, and you shall have as much money as you wish for the Treasury."
So the king began to think. He was very fond of his daughters, but still he could not do anything whatsoever without money. "Well," he said, "I agree. Have a portrait taken of yourself; I will show it to my daughters and ask which of them will take you."
So the soldier returned, had the portrait painted, which was feature for feature, unshaved, unwashed, uncombed, his nose unwiped, and in his old garb, and sent it to the tsar.
Now, the tsar had three daughters, and the father summoned them and showed them the soldier's portrait. He said to the eldest, "Will you go and marry him? He will redeem me from very great embarrassment."
The tsarevna saw what a monstrous animal had been painted, with tangled hair, uncut nails and unwiped nose. "I certainly won't!" she said, " I would sooner go to the devil." And from somewhere or other the devil appeared, stood behind her with pen and paper, heard what she said, and entered her soul on his register.
Then the father asked the next daughter, "Will you go and marry the soldier? "
"What! I would rather remain a maiden; I would rather tie myself up with the devil than go with him." So the devil went and inscribed her soul as well.
Then the father asked his youngest daughter, and she answered, "Evidently this must be my lot. I will go and marry him and see what God shall give."
Then the tsar was very blithe at this, and he went and told the soldier to make ready for the betrothal, and he sent him twelve carts to carry the money away.
Then the soldier made use of his devil. "There are twelve carts; pile them all high at once with gold." So the devil ran into the lake and the unholy ones set to work. Some of them brought up one sack, some two, and they soon filled the carts and sent them to the tsar, into his palace.
Then the tsar looked, and now summoned the soldier to him every day, sat with him at one table, and ate and drank with him. When they got ready for the marriage the term of fifteen years was over.
So he called the little devil and said, "Now my service is over. Turn me into a youth."
So the devil cut him up into little bits, threw them into a cauldron, and began to brew him -- brewed him, washed him and collected all his bones, one by one, in the proper way, every bone with every bone, every joint with every joint, every nerve with every nerve. Then he sprinkled them with the water of life, and the soldier arose, such a fine young man as no tale can tell and no pen can write. He then married the youngest tsarevna, and they began to live a merry life of good.
I was at the wedding. I drank mead and beer. They also had wine, and I drank it to the very dregs.
But the little devil ran back into the lake, for his elder hauled him over the coals to answer for what he had done with the soldier. "He has served out his period faithfully and honorably: he has never once shaved himself, nor cut his hair, nor wiped his nose, nor changed his clothes."
Then the elder was very angry. He said, "In fifteen years you were not able to corrupt the soldier! Was all the money given in vain? What sort of a devil will you be after this?" And he had him thrown into the burning pitch.
"Oh no, please, grandfather," said the grandson, " I have lost the soldier's soul, but I have gained two others."
"Look: the soldier thought of marrying a tsarevna; the two elder daughters both declined and said they would rather marry a devil than the soldier. So there they are, and they belong to us."
So the grandfather devil approved what the grandson imp had done, and set him free. "Yes," he said, "you know your business very well indeed."
There was once a man whose name was Don Giovanni de la Fortuna, and he lived in a beautiful house that his father had built, and spent a great deal of money. Indeed, he spent so much that very soon there was none left, and Don Giovanni, instead of being a rich man with everything he could wish for, was forced to put on the dress of a pilgrim, and to wander from place to place begging his bread.
One day he was walking down a broad road when he was stopped by a handsome man he had never seen before, who, little as Don Giovanni knew it, was the devil himself.
"Would you like to be rich," asked the devil, "and to lead a pleasant life?"
"Yes, of course I should," replied the Don.
"Well, here is a purse. Take it and say to it, 'Dear purse, give me some money,' and you will get as much as you can want. But the charm will only work if you promise to remain three years, three months, and three days without washing and without combing and without shaving your beard or changing your clothes. If you do all this faithfully, when the time is up you shall keep the purse for yourself, and I will let you off any other conditions."
Now Don Giovanni was a man who never troubled his head about the future. He did not once think how very uncomfortable he should be all those three years, but only that he should be able, by means of the purse, to have all sorts of things he had been obliged to do without. So he joyfully put the purse in his pocket and went on his way. He soon began to ask for money for the mere pleasure of it, and there was always as much as he needed. For a little while he even forgot to notice how dirty he was getting, but this did not last long, for his hair became matted with dirt and hung over his eyes, and his pilgrim's dress was a mass of horrible rags and tatters.
He was in this state when, one morning, he happened to be passing a fine palace; and, as the sun was shining bright and warm, he sat down on the steps and tried to shake off some of the dust which he had picked up on the road. But in a few minutes a maid saw him, and said to her master, "I pray you sir, to drive away that beggar who is sitting on the steps, or he will fill the whole house with his dirt."
So the master went out and called from some distance off, for he was really afraid to go near the man, "You filthy beggar, leave my house at once!"
"You need not be so rude," said Don Giovanni; "I am not a beggar, and if I chose, I could force you and your wife to leave your house."
"What is that you can do?" laughed the gentleman.
"Will you sell me your house?" asked Don Giovanni. "I will buy it from you on the spot."
"Oh, the dirty creature is quite mad!" thought the gentleman. "I shall just accept his offer for a joke." And aloud he said, "All right. Follow me, and we will go to a lawyer and get him to make a contract."
And Don Giovanni followed him, and an agreement was drawn up by which the house was to be sold at once, and a large sum of money paid down in eight days. Then the Don want to an inn, where he hired two rooms, and, standing in one of them, said to his purse, "Dear purse, fill this room with gold." And when the eight days were up it was so full you could not have put in another sovereign.
When the owner of the house came to take away his money Don Giovanni led him into the room and said, "There, just pocket what you want."
The gentleman stared with open mouth at the astonishing sight. But he had given his word to sell the house, so he took his money, as he was told, and went away with his wife to look for some place to live in. And Don Giovanni left the inn and dwelt in the beautiful rooms, where his rags and dirt looked sadly out of place. And every day these got worse and worse.
By and by the fame of his riches reached the ears of the king, and, as he himself was always in need of money, he sent for Don Giovanni, as he wished to borrow a large sum. Don Giovanni readily agreed to lend him what he wanted, and sent next day a huge wagon laden with sacks of gold.
"Who can he be?" thought the king to himself. "Why, he is much richer than I!"
The king took as much as he had need of, then ordered the rest to be returned to Don Giovanni, who refused to receive it, saying, "Tell his majesty I am much hurt at his proposal. I shall certainly not take back that handful of gold, and, if he declines to accept it, keep it yourself."
The servant departed and delivered the message, and the king wondered more than ever how anyone could be so rich. At last he spoke to the queen, "Dear wife, this man has done me a great service, and has, besides, behaved like a gentleman in not allowing me to send back the money. I wish to give him the hand of our eldest daughter."
The queen was quite pleased at this idea, and again a messenger was sent to Don Giovanni, offering him the hand of the eldest princess.
"His majesty is too good," he replied. "I can only humbly accept the honor."
The messenger took back this answer, but a second time returned with the request that Don Giovanni would present them with his picture, so that they might know what sort of a person to expect.
But when it came, and the princess saw the horrible figure, she screamed out, "What! Marry this dirty beggar? Never, never!"
"Ah, child," answered the king, "how could I ever guess that the rich Don Giovanni would ever look like that? But I have passed my royal word, and I cannot break it, so there is no help for you."
"No, father, you may cut off my head, if you choose, but marry that horrible beggar -- I never will!"
And the queen took her part, and reproached her husband bitterly for wishing his daughter to marry a creature like that.
Then the youngest daughter spoke, "Dear father, do not look so sad. As you have given your word, I will marry Don Giovanni."
The king fell on her neck, and thanked her and kissed her, but the queen and the elder girl had nothing for her but laughs and jeers.
So it was settled, and then the king bade one of his lords go to Don Giovanni and ask him when the wedding day was to be, so that the princess might make ready.
"Let it be in two months," answered Don Giovanni, for the time was nearly up that the devil had fixed, and he wanted a whole month to himself to wash off the dirt of the past three years.
The very minute that the compact with the devil had come to an end his beard was shaved, his hair was cut, and his rags were burned, and day and night he lay in a bath of clear warm water. At length he felt he was clean again, and he put on splendid clothes, and hired a beautiful ship, and arrived in state at the king's palace.
The whole of the royal family came down to the ship to receive him, and the whole way the queen and the elder princess teased the sister about the dirty husband she was going to have. But when they saw how handsome he really was their hearts were filled with envy and anger, so that their eyes were blinded, and they fell over into the sea and were drowned. And the youngest daughter rejoiced in the good luck that had come to her, and they had a splendid wedding when the days of mourning for her mother and sister were ended.
Soon after, the old king died, and Don Giovanni became king. And he was rich and happy to the end of his days, for he loved his wife, and his purse always gave him money.
In a certain town there once lived a couple who had never had a child. They had been married for nearly five years, and were very anxious for a son. The name of the wife was Clara; and of the man, Philip.
One cloudy night in December, while they were talking by the window of their house, Clara said to her husband that she was going to pray the novena [nine consecutive days of praying], so that heaven would give them a child. "I would even let my son serve the devil, if he would but give us a son!"
As her husband was willing that she should pray the novena, Clara began the next day her fervent devotions to the Virgin Mary. She went to church every afternoon for nine days. She carried a small prayer book with her, and prayed until six o'clock every evening. At last she finished her novenario, but no child was born to them, and the couple was disappointed.
A month had passed, when, to their great happiness, Clara gave birth to a son. The child they nicknamed Idó. Idó was greatly cherished by his parents, for he was their only child; but he did not care much to stay at home. He early began to show a fondness for travelling abroad, and was always to be found in the dense woods on the outskirts of the town.
One afternoon, when the family was gathered together around a small table, talking, a knock was heard at the door.
"Come in!" said Philip.
"No, I just want to talk with your wife," answered a hoarse voice from without.
Clara, trembling, opened the door, and, to her great surprise, she saw standing there a man who looked like a bear.
"A devil, a devil!" she exclaimed.
But the devil pacified her, and said, "Clara, I have come here to get your son you promised me a long time ago. Now that the day has come when your son can be of some service to me, will you deny your promise?"
Clara could make no reply at first. She merely called her son; and when he came, she said to the devil, "Here is my son. Take him, since he is yours."
Idó, who was at this time about seventeen years old, was not frightened by the devil.
"Come," said the devil, "and be my follower!"
At first Idó refused. But he finally consented to go, because of his mother's promise.
The devil now took Idó to his cave, far away outside the town. He tried in many ways to tempt Idó, but was unable to do so, because Idó was a youth of strong character. Finally the devil decided to exchange clothes with him. Idó was obliged to put on the bear-like clothes of the devil and to give him his own soldier suit.
Then the devil produced a large bag full of money, and said to Idó, "Take this money and go traveling about the world for seven years. If you live to the end of that time, and spend this money only in doing good, I will set you free. If, however, you spend the money extravagantly, you will have to go to hell with me." When had said these words, he disappeared.
Idó now began his wanderings from town to town. Whenever people saw him, they were afraid of him, and would refuse to give him shelter; but Idó would give them money from his bag, and then they would gather about him and be kind to him.
After many years he happened to come to a town where he saw an old woman summoned before a court of justice. She was accused of owing a sum of money, but was unable to pay her debt and the fine imposed on her.
When Idó paid her fine for her and thus released her from prison, the woman could hardly express her gratitude. As most of the other people about were afraid of Idó and he had no place to sleep, this woman decided to take him home with her.
Now, this old woman had three daughters. When she reached home with the bear-like man, she called her eldest daughter, and said, "Now, my daughter, here is a man who delivered me from prison. As I can do nothing to reward him for his great kindness, I want you to take him for your husband."
The daughter replied, "Mother, why have you brought this ugly man here? No, I cannot marry him. I can find a better husband."
On hearing this harsh reply, the mother could not say a word. She called her second daughter, and explained her wishes to her; but the younger daughter refused, just as her sister had refused, and she made fun of the man.
The mother was very much disappointed, but she was unable to persuade her daughters to marry her benefactor. Finally she determined to try her youngest daughter. When the daughter heard her mother's request, she said, "Mother, if to have me marry this man is the only way by which you can repay him for his kindness, I'll gladly marry him."
The mother was very much pleased, but the two older daughters were very angry with their sister. The mother told the man of the decision of her youngest daughter, and a contract was signed between them. But before they were married, the bear-like man asked permission from the girl to be absent for one more year to finish his duty. She consented to his going, and gave him half her ring as a memento.
At the end of the year, which was the last of his seven years' wandering, the bear-like man went to the devil, and told him that he had finished his duty.
The devil said, "You have beaten me. Now that you have performed your seven years' wandering, and have spent the money honestly, let us exchange clothes again!"
So the man received back his soldier-like suit, which made him look like a knight, and the devil took back his bearskin.
Then the man returned to Clara's house. When his arrival was announced to the family, the two older daughters dressed themselves in their best, for they thought that he was a suitor come to see them. But when the man showed the ring and asked for the hand of Clara's youngest daughter, the two nearly died with vexation, while the youngest daughter was very happy.
Revised July 20, 2008.