The ultimate personification of evil in both a worldly and metaphysical sense, the Devil is known to us under countless names; Abaddon; Beelzebub; Lucifer and, of course, Satan. In fact, there are almost as many words for the Devil in the Bible as there is for Christ. Maybe this is what inspired Mick Jagger when he wrote the lyric “Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name!” in his 1968 hit Sympathy for the Devil!
Whatever you call him, chances are you grew up somewhere with its fair share of folklore tales featuring mankind’s favourite antagonist. Join us then as we explore seven tales of the Devil from folklore.
1. The Devil and the Revolutionary War Hero (U.S.A)
Jonathan Moulton was an important person in the history of New Hampshire. He served as Brigadier General in the American War of Independence, winning particular favour with George Washington. After the war, Moulton acquired incredible levels of wealth and gained a reputation as a greedy, avaricious individual.
Supernatural stories of Moulton soon arose and became part of New Hampshire’s folklore cannon. In the most famous, Moulton sits in his mansion and ponders ways to become richer. He declares that he’d sell his soul for more gold. In response, the Devil appears in his sitting room, dressed in black and gold. He promises to fill Moulton’s boots to the brim with gold coins on the first day of every month, and if he does, he will own Moulton’s soul. Moulton agrees, the Devil leaves… then Moulton schemes.
He purchases a large pair of boots, cuts their soles off and places them in a fireplace that has had a hole cut in its base. True to his word, on the first day of the next month, the Devil returns and begins to fill the boots with gold. But, no matter how much he pours in, he can’t fill them up – all of the coins instead fall into Moulton’s basement, leaving his soul intact! Eventually, the Devil realises he has been outsmarted. In retaliation, he burns Moulton’s house down and the gold coins disappear.
2. The Devil and the Church Bell (U.K)
In the small village of Knowlton in Dorset, the ruins of an atmospheric 12th century church sits alongside the remains of several Neolithic monuments, including a barrow and three henges. It is believed that these monuments were associated with prehistoric ritual, and the fact that a Norman church was later built on top of them is curious and unique – few sites in the U.K demonstrate a transition from pagan to Christian worship so symbolically. The church was used as late as the 17th century before being abruptly abandoned and left to ruin. What happened?
In one story, the Devil steals the church’s great bell, throwing it into the nearby River Allen. The villagers try to rescue the bell but can’t overcome the strength of the Devil. As a last resort, they use their oxen and manage to get the bell to briefly surface. The villagers shout in triumph “We’ve got out the bell, in spite of all the devils in hell”, but to their dismay, the ropes attached to the bell snap! Due to this failure, they abandon the church and the nearby hamlet. Another tale has it that the bell was stolen by thieves who were hunted down with witchcraft, so clearly there’s something about the area that attracts colourful stories. This is probably what prompted 19th century writer W. H. Hudson to describe Knowlton as “a land of strange things”.
3. The Devil and the Werewolf (Germany)
Better known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, Peter Stumpp is a disturbing figure from the annals of history (if you are to believe what essentially amounts to a 16th century tabloid!) Stumpp was a wealthy farmer living near Cologne. Over a period of 25 years, Stumpp murdered and cannibalised countless victims and was believed to have a relationship with a succubus sent to him by the Devil… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Stumpp could turn into a werewolf and used this ability to commit his crimes. The Devil gave Stumpp this power; all he had to do was wear a magical belt that allowed him to change into “the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf”. That Stumpp could transform at will and not just when the moon was full meant he could unleash hell on his neighbours at his own leisure, night and day.
Captured and tortured, Stumpp confessed to his heinous crimes and was executed in a particularly brutal manner using a breaking wheel. It is said he showed no remorse, and the powerful belt gifted to him by the Devil was never found. After his death, his head was attached to that of a wolf and left on display in public as a warning to anyone else contemplating lycanthropy.
4. The Devil and the Blacksmith (Greece)
There was once a village full of wicked people. Greed, theft and violence were commonplace. Amongst this depravity, one man remained true to God. His name was Temerjis and he worked as a blacksmith. The Devil wanted to turn him, so he went to his shop incognito and declared that he too was a smithy:
“I know the craft well. I can forge ten mattocks in one heat. If you want to learn my wage, I will tell it to you now.”
Temerjis was elated at the proposal and put the stranger to work. True to his word, in one heat the Devil made ten mattocks and was permanently hired. For a time, he continued to forge incredible objects that bolstered Temerjis’s reputation.
One day, an elderly man visited Temerjis and asked if he had the talent to make him young again. “Are you insane?” Temerjis cried. “All we do is temper hammers and shovels. We cannot make people young!” The Devil, however, declared he had such a talent. He offered the man a seat, and told the blacksmith to “make the crockery rattle”. That is to say, work the old man with his tools as he would metal in his forge. Temerjis hammered away and to his surprise the old man became young.
One day, when he was alone, a man from a neighbouring village called on the blacksmith’s services, begging him to “make me, who am so wretched, a young man again”. In his hubris, Temerjis invited the man to take a seat and began to work him with his tools as he had done before. Without the Devil’s powers, all the blacksmith managed to do was beat the old, frail man to death. As he struck the fatal blow in horror, the Devil returned. Temerjis rounded on him, exclaiming that he needed his help to cover up his crime. The Devil declared in triumph:
“Son of a dog, son of a donkey, are you only now figuring out how I hard I have worked to make you like everyone else… Go now to perdition and keep company with Judas.”
5. The Devil and Stingy Jack (Ireland)
The legend of Stingy Jack has been put forward as a possible explanation of lighting jack-o-lanterns at Halloween. In the most famous rendition of the tale, Jack is wandering through the countryside and comes across a body on a cobblestone path that begins to stir – it’s the Devil. Fearing that his malevolent lifestyle had finally caught up with him, Jack begs that he be allowed one final drink before being whisked off to hell.
The Devil agrees to this request and takes Jack to a local pub. After drinking the bar dry, Jack asks the Devil if he could pay his tab. The Devil, bemused, transforms into a single silver coin, which Jack then pockets – alongside a crucifix! Unable to escape, the Devil agrees to give in to Jack’s demands. In exchange for his freedom, Jack has his soul spared for ten more years.
Ten years pass and Jack finds himself in the Devil’s presence again. This time, Jack asks to eat one final apple plucked from a nearby tree. The Devil, foolishly, climbs into the tree – and it’s full of crucifixes! Trapped again, the Devil agrees that he will never take Jack’s soul.
Upon his death, Jack is denied entry to both heaven and hell because of his lifestyle. Instead, he’s forced to wander the netherworld holding a single ember, warning others to not follow his path.
6. The Devil and the Black Dog (Mexico)
The cadejo is a creature from Mexican folklore that takes two forms – white and black. The white cadejo is said to be a kind spirit, whilst the black is said to be the Devil himself. The black cadejo takes the form of a large, wounded dog with hoofed feet bound with red-hot chains. Evil incarnate, the black cadejo has piercing red eyes and smells of burning sulphur. It lurks in alleys and other dark places.
It appears to those who wander into villages late at night looking for shelter and those with a bad conscience. It hypnotises its victims to steal their souls, leaving behind an empty shell. In El Salvador, victims of the cadejo are described as have being “played by an evil spirit”.
The black cadejo does not have to catch you to cause harm. Simply sighting the beast can cause you a life of bad luck. The only way to remedy this is to find and seek the protection of a white cadejo.
7. The Devil and the Black Volga (Former U.S.S.R)
Occupying that grey area between urban legend and folklore, stories about the Devil driving a black Volga – a very high end limousine with white curtains and rims – are very common in countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union. According to legend, the Black Volga would manifest out of nowhere and target children. The Devil would reach from the car and grab his targets as he passed, to take them back to hell. Anyone brave enough to challenge him would be found dead 24 hours later. Colourful variants of these tales include the fact that the car’s wing mirrors took the shape of goat horns. Sometimes, the car itself is said to be sentient, embodying the Devil’s spirit.
That these stories originated at a time when the USSR was at its peak and ruled with an Iron Fist is no surprise; plenty of individuals deemed enemies of the state would have been kidnaped by nefarious government agents in the dead of night, bundled into the back of cars, never to be seen again. That people likened the Soviet elite with Lucifer says a lot about the environment they lived in, and shows how the Prince of Darkness isn’t going to be leaving our tales anytime soon.