One curious character who shows up in at least two fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm is the Devil’s grandmother. She puts in appearances in one story called simply “The Devil and His Grandmother” (sometimes called “The Dragon and His Grandmother”), and another entitled “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.” And in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf,” the Devil’s GREAT-grandmother is a character. In the two Grimm tales, she’s actually a friendly sort, who aids the hero against her grandson. In “The Devil and His Grandmother,” three soldiers desert the army because of the low pay, but end up stranded in a cornfield until a dragon comes to rescue them. This dragon turns out to be Satan, who agrees to keep the three safe and rich for seven years if they’ll serve him after that. There’s an out, though, in the form of a riddle that they can go free if they answer correctly. On the advice of an old lady, the bravest of the soldiers seeks out the Devil’s grandmother, who worms the answer out of her grandson while the soldier hides.
Picture by Ted Cocuzza
“Three Golden Hairs” gives a similar role to the Dark One’s ancestress, with the plot this time involving a boy who is destined to marry a king’s daughter, but is sent off by the unwilling king to retrieve the Devil’s three golden hairs. Along the way to Hell, he is also asked three questions. The Evil One’s grandmother takes pity on the boy, pulls out the three hairs, and tricks the Devil into revealing the three answers. Basically, for the Grimms, she plays the role of the helpful old crone. Maria Tatar mentions in The Annotated Brothers Grimm that it’s very likely “Three Golden Hairs” originally featured a typical fairy tale giant instead of the Prince of Darkness himself, and the Grimms themselves called attention to the similarity between the grandmother and the giant’s wife in “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
The Devil’s great-grandmother in the Andersen story does not provide assistance to anyone, and is said to spend her time in sewing and weaving lies and rash words into mischief and slander. She also sticks pins and needles into people’s legs. The tale calls her “an extremely venomous old creature whose hands are never idle,” which I suppose means they aren’t her great-grandson’s playthings either. The old lady takes the lifeless form of the titular Inger to use as a statue in the entrance hall to Hell.
So how did the Devil end up with a grandmother (or, in the case of the Andersen story, a great-grandmother)? It certainly doesn’t fit with the typical Christian mythology surrounding Lucifer, which says he was created directly by God. The answer seems to lie in German and Russian sayings and curses, in which the Devil’s mother and grandmother both feature. I couldn’t say where these originated, but they might well have their origins in pagan folklore. Is there a figure in Slavic or Teutonic mythology who plays a role similar to the Devil and has prominent female relatives? None comes to mind offhand, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. One expression I’ve come across occasionally is “The Devil is beating his wife” when it rains while the sun is shining. According to this excerpt from the Journal of American Folklore, it’s also sometimes the Devil’s mother and grandmother who get beaten during such an event. And if you have to wonder why anyone would marry the Devil, he’s rich, powerful, and has held down the same job since the beginning of the world. Quite a catch, wouldn’t you say? :P By the way, “devil’s grandmother” is also an alternate name for hairy elephantsfoot, a plant that can be found in the American Southeast.