The Devil's Bridge

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1191

translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2013


Contents

  1. The Sachsenhäuser Bridge at Frankfurt (Germany).

  2. The Bamberg Cathedral and Bridge (Germany).

  3. The Devil's Bridge in Lake Galenbeck (Germany).

  4. The Devil's Bridge (Austria).

  5. The Devil's Bridge (Switzerland).

  6. The Devil's Bridge (Switzerland/France).

  7. The Devil's Bridge in Cardiganshire (Wales).

  8. The Devil's Bridge (Wales).

  9. The Devil's Bridge (Wales).

  10. The Devil's Bridge at Kirkby (England).

  11. The Bridge at Kentchurch (England).

  12. The Devil's Bridge (England).

  13. Kilgrim Bridge (England).

  14. Related Links.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Sachsenhäuser Bridge at Frankfurt

Germany

There are two arches in the middle of the Sachsenhäuser Bridge. At the top they are closed partially only with wood which, in time of war, can easily be removed so that the connection can be destroyed without blasting. The following legend is told about this bridge:

The builder had agreed to complete the bridge by a certain date. As the date approached he saw that it would be impossible to meet the deadline. With only two days remaining, in his fear he called upon the devil and asked him for help.

The devil appeared to him and offered to complete the bridge during the last night if the builder would deliver to him the first living being that crossed the bridge. The contract was settled, and during the last night the devil completed the bridge. In the darkness no human eye saw how he did it.

At the break of day the builder came and drove a rooster across the bridge ahead of himself, thus delivering it to the devil. However, the latter had expected a human soul, and when he saw that he had been deceived he angrily grabbed the rooster, ripped it apart, and threw it through the bridge, thus causing the two holes that to the present day cannot be mortared shut. Any repair work that is completed during the day just falls apart the next night.

A golden rooster on an iron bar still stands as the bridge's emblem.




The Bamberg Cathedral and Bridge

Germany

A famous master builder and his journeyman, while building the Bamberg Cathedral's tower and the Bamberg Bridge, entered into a wager which could finish first. When the master was almost finished, the journeyman was still far behind, so the latter made a pact with the devil, that he should quickly build the bridge. In return, the devil would receive the first living being to cross the bridge.

The devil quickly went to work and was finished within a short time. Then the journeyman fetched a rooster and chased it across the bridge. The devil angrily departed with it.

The master builder of the tower was so irritated with the early completion of the bridge that in his dismay he threw himself from the tower.




The Devil's Bridge in Lake Galenbeck

Germany

In Lake Galenbeck (in the vicinity of Friedland) there is a tongue of land, probably artificial, that stretches about to the middle of the lake. It is called the devil's bridge, and is said to be the remains of a bridge started, but never completed, by the devil.

A shepherd had to drive his herd completely around the lake in order to reach his pasture. This annoyed him, and one day he wished with a curse that a bridge went across the lake. He had scarcely uttered this wish when a man appeared before him. The man promised to build a bridge in one night, before the rooster crowed three times, under the condition that the shepherd would then belong to him. The shepherd entered into this agreement.

That evening when he arrived home, he told his wife what had happened. She said nothing, but at midnight she went to the chicken coop and awakened the rooster, who thought that it was already morning, and crowed three times.

The devil heard this. He was not finished with his work, and angrily flew off through the air without completing the bridge.




The Devil's Bridge

Austria

Almost every country possesses some legend of a "Devil's Bridge," and how the Evil One has been ultimately cheated by his own handiwork, and the Tyrol, which is alive with legends and superstitions, is not behind any other in this respect.

In the valley of Montafon, the bridge of the village broke down, or rather the swollen torrent carried it away; and as the parish was anxious to restore it as soon as possible, the villagers of course being unable to pass to and from Schruns, on the other side of the river, for all their daily wants, they applied to the village carpenter, and offered him a large sum of money if he would rebuild the bridge in three days' time. This puzzled the poor fellow beyond description; he had a large family and now his fortune would be made at once; but he saw the impossibility of finishing the work in so short a time, and therefore he begged one day for reflection.

Then he set to work to study all day, up to midnight, to find out how he could manage to do the work within the specified time; and as he could find out nothing, he thumped the table with his fist, and called out, "To the devil with it! I can find out nothing."

In his anger and annoyance he was on the point of going to bed, when all at once a little man wearing a green hat entered the room, and asked, "Carpenter, wherefore so sad?" and then the carpenter told him all his troubles.

The little fellow replied, "It is very easy to help you. I will build your bridge, and in three days it shall be finished, but only on the condition that the first soul out of your house who passes over the bridge shall be mine."

On hearing this, the carpenter, who then knew with whom he had to do, shuddered with horror, though the large sum of money enticed him, and he thought to himself, "After all, I will cheat the devil," and so he agreed to the contract.

Three days afterwards the bridge was complete, and the devil stood in the middle, awaiting his prey. After having remained there for many days, the carpenter at last appeared himself, and at that sight the devil jumped with joy; but the carpenter was driving one of his goats, and as he approached the bridge, he pushed her on before him, and called out, "There you have the first soul out of my house," and the devil seized upon the goat.

But, oh, grief and shame! First disappointed, and then enraged, he dragged the poor goat so hard by her tail that it came out, and then off he flew, laughed at and mocked by all who saw him.

Since that time it is that goats have such short tails.




The Devil's Bridge

Switzerland

A Swiss herdsman who often visited his girlfriend had either to make his way across the Reuss River with great difficulty or to take a long detour in order to see her.

It happened that once he was standing on a very high precipice when he spoke out angrily, "I wish that the devil were here to make me a bridge to the other side!"

In an instant the devil was standing beside him, and said, "If you will promise me the first living thing that walks across it, I will build a bridge for you that you can use from now on to go across and back. The herdsman agreed, and in a few moments the bridge was finished. However, the herdsman drove a chamois across the bridge ahead of himself, and he followed along behind.

The deceived devil ripped the animal apart and threw the pieces from the precipice.




The Devil's Bridge

Switzerland/France

There is a curious legend connected with a bridge which spans some tributary of the Rhine forming the boundary between Alsace and Switzerland. When this bridge was being built, an almost insurmountable difficulty arose. Beelzebub, always willing to win a human soul, offered to aid the builders on condition that the first living being that crossed the bridge should be his, and he sent one of his imps to help.

The bridge builder, being aware of the extreme gullibility of the fiend, consented, but outwitted him, for as soon as the bridge was completed, he brought a black goat, and placing it before him, pushed it across the bridge. Beelzebub's imp, in his rage at being outwitted, grasped the goat by the horns, and hurled it through the floor of the bridge.

Every old Alsatian who comes from this part of Alsace will solemnly aver that the hole is still there, because all efforts at repairing the breach are frustrated by Beelzebub's imps.




The Devil's Bridge in Cardiganshire

Wales

Best known among the natural objects in various parts of Wales which are connected with the devil in popular lore, is the Devil's Bridge, in Cardiganshire. Associated with this bridge are several legends, which derive their greatest interest from their intrinsic evidences of an antiquity in common with the same legends in other lands. The guidebooks of the region, like guidebooks everywhere, in their effort to avoid being led into unwarranted statement, usually indulge in playfully sarcastic references to these ancient tales. They are much older, however, than the bridge itself can possibly be. The devil's activity in bridge-building is a myth more ancient than the medieval devil of our acquaintance.

The building story of the Devil's Bridge in Cardiganshire runs briefly thus: An old woman who had lost her cow spied it on the other side of the ravine, and was in great trouble about it, not knowing how to get over where the animal was. The devil, taking advantage of her distress, offered to throw a bridge over the ravine, so that she might cross and get her cow; but he stipulated that the first living creature to cross the bridge should be his.

The old woman agreed; the bridge was built; and the devil waited to see her cross. She drew a crust of bread from her pocket, threw it over, and her little black dog flew after it.

"The dog's yours, sir," said the dame; and Satan was discomfited.

In the story told of the old bridge over the Main at Frankfort, a bridge-contractor and his troubles are substituted for the old woman and her cow; instead of a black dog a live rooster appears, driven in front of him by the contractor. The Welsh Satan seems to have received his discomfiture good-naturedly enough; in the German tale he tears the fowl to pieces in his rage.

In Switzerland, every reader knows the story told of the devil's bridge in the St. Gotthard pass. A new bridge has taken the place, for public use, of the old bridge on the road to Andermatt, and to the dangers of the crumbling masonry are added superstitious terrors concerning the devil's power to catch any one crossing after dark. The old Welsh bridge has been in like manner superseded by a modern structure; but I think no superstition like the last noted is found at Hafod.




The Devil's Bridge

Wales

The Devil's Bridge is twelve miles from Aberystwyth; it is over the Afon Mynach just before its junction with the Rheidol. The Mynach cataract consists of four leaps, making a total descent of 210 feet. The bridge has been thrown across a chasm 114 feet above the first fall and 324 feet above the bottom of the cataract. The original bridge was constructed by the monks of Strata Florida, at what time is unknown, but legend says it was built by the devil.
Old Megan Llandunach, of Pont-y-Mynach,
Had lost her only cow;
Across the ravine the cow was seen.
But to get it she could not tell how.
In this dilemma the Evil One appeared to her cowled as a monk, and with a rosary at his belt, and offered to cast a bridge across the chasm if she would promise him the first living being that should pass over it when complete. To this she gladly consented. The bridge was thrown across the ravine, and the Evil One stood beyond bowing and beckoning to the old woman to come over and try it. But she was too clever to do that She had noticed his left leg as he was engaged on the construction, and saw that the knee was behind in place of in front, and for a foot he had a hoof.
In her pocket she fumbled, a crust out tumbled,
She called her little black cur;
The crust over she threw, the dog after it flew,
Says she, "The dog's yours, crafty sir!"



The Devil's Bridge

Wales

One day in the olden time, old Megan of Llandunach stood by the side of the river Mynach feeling very sorry for herself.

The Mynach was in flood, and roared down the wooded dingle in five successive falls, tumbling over three hundred feet in less than no time. Just below the place where Megan was standing, there was a great cauldron in which the water whirled, boiled, and hissed as if troubled by some evil spirit. From the cauldron the river rushed and swirled down a narrow, deep ravine, and if the old woman had had an eye for the beauties of nature, the sight of the seething pot and the long shadowy cleft would have made her feel joyous rather than sorrowful.

But Megan at this time cared for none of these things, because her one and only cow was on the wrong side of the ravine, and her thoughts were centered on the horned beast which was cropping the green grass carelessly just as if it made no difference what side of the river it was on. How the wrong-headed animal had got there Megan could not guess, and still less did she know how to get it back.

As there was no one else to talk to, she talked to herself. "Oh dear, what shall I do?" she said.

"What is the matter, Megan?" said a voice behind her.

She turned round and saw a man cowled like a monk and with a rosary at his belt. She had not heard anyone coming, but the noise of the waters boiling over and through the rocks, she reflected, might easily have drowned the sound of any footsteps. And in any case, she was so troubled about her cow that she could not stop to wonder how the stranger had come up.

"I am ruined," said Megan. "There is my one and only cow, the sole support of my old age, on the other side of the river, and I don't know how to get her back again. Oh dear, oh dear, I am ruined."

"Don't you worry about that," said the monk. "I'll get her back for you."

"How can you?" asked Megan, greatly surprised.

"I'll tell you," answered the stranger. "It is one of my amusements to build bridges, and if you like, I'll throw a bridge across this chasm for you."

"Well, indeed," said the old woman, "nothing would please me better. But how am I to pay you? I am sure you will want a great deal for a job like this, and I am so poor that I have no money to spare, look you, no indeed."

"I am very easily satisfied," said the monk. "Just let me have the first living thing that crosses the bridge after I have finished it, and I shall be content."

Megan agreed to this, and the monk told her to go back to her cottage and wait there until he should call for her.

Now, Megan was not half such a fool as she looked, and she had noticed, while talking to the kind and obliging stranger, that there was something rather peculiar about his foot. She had a suspicion, too, that his knees were behind instead of being in front, and while she was waiting for the summons, she thought so hard that it made her head ache.

By the time she was halloed for, she had hit upon a plan. She threw some crusts to her little dog to make him follow her, and took a loaf of bread under her shawl to the riverside.

"There's a bridge for you," said the monk, pointing proudly to a fine span bestriding the yawning chasm. And it really was something to be proud of.

"H'm, yes," said Megan, looking doubtfully at it. "Yes, it is a bridge. But is it strong?"

"Strong?" said the builder, indignantly. "Of course it is strong."

"Will it hold the weight of this loaf?" asked Megan, bringing the bread out for underneath her shawl.

The monk laughed scornfully. "Hold the weight of this loaf? Throw it on and see. Ha, ha!"

So Megan rolled the loaf right across the bridge, and the little black cur scampered after it.

"Yes, it will do," said Megan. "And, kind sir, my little dog is the first live thing to cross the bridge. You are welcome to him, and I thank you very much for all the trouble you have taken."

"Tut, the silly dog is no good to me," said the stranger, very crossly, and with that he vanished into space.

From the smell of brimstone which he had left behind him, Megan knew that, as she had suspected, it was the devil whom she had outwitted.

And this is how the Bad Man's Bridge came to be built.




The Devil's Bridge at Kirkby

England

The Devil's Bridge, a remarkable structure, composed of three beautifully fluted arches, and so named from having, it is said, been built by his Satanic majesty; if so it is certainly inconsistent and in direct contradiction to his general character, and the good that has come out of evil in this instance is most remarkable. Respecting the building, the legend which nearly all Kirkby people will tell you, is as follows:

A cow belonging to a poor woman had strayed across the river at some convenient wading place, and not having returned with the town herd at milking time, the woman went forth to seek her. In the meantime the water had risen considerably, and, not being able to cross the river, the woman was in a dilemma, for her good man, a laborer, and her cow, were on the opposite side. At this juncture the devil, in human form, appeared on the other bank, no doubt assuming the soft guile of the tempter, promised to build a bridge, on condition that the first living thing which passed over should become his lawful prize; to this the woman gladly assented.

Darkness deepened rapidly -- necessary for diabolical thought and deed, which in this instance was frustrated by the forethought of the woman, whose husband or herself had been singled out for the victim which was to propitiate the building of the bridge. At the appointed hour she returned, bringing with her a dog, and a delicious morsel wherewith to tempt it. The bridge was complete, and there stood his sable majesty, anxiously awaiting his victim.

Suddenly, across the bridge, she threw the tempting morsel, and after it sprang the dog. The devil, seeing how cleverly he had been outwitted, gave forth a terrific howl, which aroused all the inhabitants in the old town, who at once rushed down to the river to ascertain the cause, thinking there had been an earthquake, instead of which they were agreeably astonished to find a substantial bridge, across which the woman, accompanied by her husband and dog, were driving the cow.

And there still stands the remarkable structure to witness or attest the truth, as story says, if I lie, and as a further proof, below the bridge is still to be seen the Devil's Neck Collar -- a rock with a large perforation, which he lost from his neck in that wild unearthly plunge from the bridge, on finding his hellish scheme thwarted.




The Bridge at Kentchurch

Herefordshire, England

Jack [o' Kent] and the devil built the bridge over the Monnow between Kentchurch and Grosmont in a single night. What they built by night fell down by day as long as the bridge remained incomplete, hence the need for haste. The first passenger to pass over the bridge was to belong to the devil, so Jack threw a bone across, and a poor dog ran after it. That dog was all the devil had for his pains.




The Devil's Bridge

Yorkshire, England

The highway between Pateley Bridge and Grassington crosses, in the parish of Burnsall, the deep dell in which runs the small river Dibb, or Dibble, by a bridge known in legend as the Devil's Bridge. It might reasonably be supposed that Deep-Dell Bridge, or Dibble Bridge, was the correct and desirable designation, but legend and local tradition will by no means have it so, and account for the less pleasant name in the following manner.

In the days when Fountain's Abbey was in its prime, a shoemaker and small tenant of part of the abbey lands, named Ralph Calvert, resided at Thorp-sub-Montem, and journeyed twice a year along this road to pay his rent to the abbot, dispose of the fruits of his six months' handiwork, and return the shoes entrusted to him on his previous visit for repair, and bring back with him, on his return, a bag well filled with others that needed his attention.

The night before setting out on one of these occasions, he had a fearful dream, in which he struggled with the devil, who, in this wild, rocky ravine, amid unpleasant surroundings, endeavored to thrust Ralph into a bag, similar to the one in which he carried his stock-in-trade. This he and his wife feared boded no good. In the morning, however, he started on his journey, and duly reached the abbey, assisted at the service, did his business with the abbot and brethren, and then started, with his well filled bag, on his return homewards.

When he arrived near home, in the deep ravine, where on previous occasions he had found but a small brook which he could easily ford, he now found a mountain torrent, through which he only with difficulty and some danger made his way. Having accomplished the passage, he sat down to rest and to dry his wetted garments. As he sat and contemplated the place, he could not but recall how exactly it corresponded with the spot seen in his dream, and at which the author of evil had tried to bag him. Dwelling on this brought anything but pleasant thoughts, and to drive them away, and to divert his mind, he struck up a familiar song, in which the name of the enemy finds frequent mention, and the refrain of which was:

Sing luck-a-down, heigh down,
Ho, down derry.

He was unaware of any presence but his own. But, to his alarm, another voice than his added a further line:

Tol lol derol, darel dol, dolde derry.

Ralph thought of his dream. Then he fancied he saw the shadow of a man on the road. Then from a projecting corner of a rock he heard a voice reading over a list of delinquents in the neighborhood, with whom he must remonstrate -- Ralph's own name among the rest. Not to be caught eavesdropping, Ralph feigned sleep. But after a time was aroused by the stranger, and a long conversation ensued, the upshot of which was, after they had entered into a compact of friendship, that Satan informed the shoemaker who he was and inquired of the alarmed man if there was anything that he could do for him.

Ralph looked at the swollen torrent and thought of the danger he had lately incurred in crossing it, and of his future journeys that way to the abbey. And then he said, "I have heard that you are an able architect. I should wish you to build a bridge across this stream. I know you can do it."

At nightfall Ralph reached his home at Thorpe, and related his adventure to his wife, and added, "In spite of all that is said against him, the Evil One is an honest gentleman, and I have made him promise to build a bridge at the Gill Ford on the road to Pateley. If he fulfils his promise, St. Crispin bless him."

The news of Ralph's adventure and of the promise soon spread among the neighbors, and he had no small amount of village chaff and ridicule to meet before the eventful Saturday -- the fourth day -- arrived. At last it came.

Accompanied by thirty or forty of the villagers, Ralph made his way to the dell, where, on arrival, picture their astonishment at the sight! Lo, a beautiful and substantial bridge spanned the abyss! Surveyor, and mason, and priest pronounced it to be perfect. The latter sprinkled it with holy water, caused a cross to be placed at each approach to it, and then declared it to be safe for all Christian people to use. So it remained until the Puritan Minister of Pateley, in the time of the Commonwealth, discerning the story to be a Popish legend, caused the protecting crosses to be removed as idolatrous.

After that time, neither the original builder nor any other person seems to have thought fit to keep the bridge in "good and tenantable" repair, and in time it fell into so disreputable and dangerous a condition, that the liberal and almost magic-working native of the parish -- Sir William Craven, Lord Mayor of London in the reign of the 1st James -- took the matter in hand and built upon the old foundations a more terrestrial, but not less substantial and enduring, structure.

Still men call it the Devil's Bridge.




Kilgrim Bridge

England

Regarding the building of this [Kilgrim] bridge is the following curious legend:

Many bridges having been built on this site by the inhabitants, none had been able to withstand the fury of the floods until his "Satanic Majesty" promised to build a bridge which would defy the fury of the elements, on condition that the first living creature who passed over should fall a sacrifice to his "Sable Majesty."

Long did the inhabitants consider, when the bridge was complete, as to who should be the victim. A shepherd, more wise than his neighbors, owned a dog called Grim. This man having first swum the river, whistled for the dog to follow. Poor Grim unwittingly bounded across the bridge and thus fell a victim to his "Sable Majesty."

Tradition says, from this circumstance the spot has ever since been known as Kill Grim Bridge.




Links to related sites

  1. Faust Legends, stories about mortals who enter into contracts with the demonic powers.

  2. Master Builder Legends, in which a mortal tricks a supernatural being (typically a troll or a giant) into helping him build a grand edifice.

  3. Straightening a Curly Hair. Folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 1175, in which a demon helper is defeated because he cannot straighten a curly hair.


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised February 19, 2013.