The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/Death's Messengers

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GRIMM'S story of "Death's Messengers" was known in Europe as early as the thirteenth century, but does not occur in the Greek or Latin fable-poets.

Grimm's legend, as Englished by Margaret Hunt, is as follows:

"In ancient times a giant was once travelling on a great highway, when suddenly an unknown man sprang up before him, and said, 'Halt, not one step further!' What!' cried the giant, 'a creature whom I can crush between my fingers wants to block my way? Who art thou that thou darest to speak so boldly?' 'I am Death,' answered the other. 'No one resists me, and thou also must obey my commands.' But the giant refused, and began to struggle with Death. It was a long, violent battle; at last the giant got the upper hand, and struck Death down with his fist, so that he dropped by a stone. The giant went his way, and Death lay there conquered, and so weak that he could not get up again. 'What will be done now,' said he, 'if I stay lying here in a corner? No one will die now in the world, and it will get so full of people they won't have room to stand beside each other.' In the meantime a young man came along the road, who was strong and healthy, singing a song, and glancing around on every side. When he saw the half-fainting one, he went compassionately to him, raised him up, poured a strengthening draught out of his flask for him, and waited till he came round. 'Dost thou know,' said the stranger, whilst he was getting up, 'who I am, and who it is whom thou hast helped on his legs again?' 'No,' answered the youth, 'I do not know thee.' 'I am Death,' said he; 'I spare no one, and can make no exception with thee; but that thou mayst see that I am grateful, I promise thee that I will not fall on thee unexpectedly, but will send my messengers to thee before I come and take thee away.' 'Well,' said the youth, 'it is something gained that I shall know when thou comest, and at any rate be safe from thee for so long.' Then he went on his way, and was light-hearted, and enjoyed himself, and lived without thought. But youth and health did not last long, soon came sicknesses and sorrows, which tormented him by day and took away his rest by night. 'Die I shall not,' said he to himself, 'for Death will send his messengers before that, but I do wish these wretched days of sickness were over.' As soon as he felt himself well again he began once more to live merrily. Then one day some one tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round, and Death stood beside him, and said, 'Follow me, the hour of thy departure from this world has come.' 'What,' replied the man, 'wilt thou break thy word? Didst thou not promise me that thou wouldst send thy messengers to me before coming thyself? I have seen none!' 'Silence!' answered Death. 'Have I not sent one messenger to thee after another? Did not fever come and smite thee, and shake thee, and cast thee down? Has dizziness not bewildered thy head? Has not gout twitched thee in all thy limbs? Did not thine ears sing? Did not toothache bite into thy cheeks? Was it not dark before thine eyes? And besides all that, has not my own brother Sleep reminded thee every night of me? Didst thou not lie by night as if thou wert already dead?' The man could make no answer; he yielded to his fate, and went away with Death."—(Grimm's Household Tales, No. 177, vol. ii. pp. 277, 278, 456, 457.)

This bears a close resemblance to the Latin story with the same title in the Æsop of Joach. Camerarius, where Hercules is mentioned as the giant, and Pheræus the young man who came to the aid of Death.

"De Mortis Nuntiis.

"Cum Hercules rellquisset superatum Letum ad bustum Alcestidos, vbi illud jaceret anhelans et exanimatum, misertum illius quondam Pheræum qui transiens aspexisset, recreasse ipsum et perfecisse ferunt, vt vires pristinas recuperaret. Ob hoc beneficium Letum promisisse iili memoriam à se grati animi, et cùm non prorsus parcere ei posset, non tamen se oppressurum esse de improuiso benefactorem suum, sed missnrnm prius qui monerent quique indicarent quòd appropinquaret Letum. His policitis Pheræus elatus, animo secure vitam egit, cumque minimè metueret, Letum ad se auferendum adesse cognovit. Questus igitur ille grauissimè perhibetur, se circumuentum fraude arripi, et Lete vanitatem accussasse : neminem enim prænuntiasse aduentum ipsius. Cui Letum narrant demonstrasse, plurimos à se nuntios ad eum peruenisse. Nam et annos ante sex febri, et post duos rursum, grauedine ac destillationibus eum laborasse. Intereaque SEepe cum tussi, sæpe capitis doloribus confiictatum, proximè etiam anbelasse. Quibus omnibus ut accedentis Leti nuntiis non longissimè illud abesse commoneri debuerit. Quin etiam, inquit, paullo ante adventum meum, germanum fratrem ad te misi, veternosum ilium soporem, in quo aliquantisper pro mortuo iacuisti. Ita probata fide sua, quodque promissum fecisset, Pheræum lamentantem et muliebriter eiulantem abripuit.

"Decemur de valetudine imbecillitate et morbis cognoscendam mortalitatem, neque mortem omnibus necessarid oppetendam, nimium perhorrescendam esse."

The fable was not unknown in England. In L'Estrange's Fables (1694) we find a story (No. 350) entitled, "An Old Man that was willing to put off Death," evidently derived from the 149th fable in the Æsop of Abstemius (1519):

"An Old Man that was willing to put off Death.

"There goes a story that Death call'd upon an old man, and bad him come along with him. The man excus'd himself that t' other world was a great journy to take upon so short a warning, and begg'd a little time only to make his will before he dy'd. Why (says Death) you have had warning enough one would think to have made ready before this. In truth, says the Old Man, this is the first time that ever I saw ye in my whole life. That's false says Death, for you have had daily examples of mortality before your eyes in people of all sorts, ages and degrees; and is not the frequent spectacle of other peoples' deaths a memento sufficient to make yon think of your own? Your dim and hollow eyes methinks, the loss of your hearing, and the faltering of the rest of your senses, should mind ye, without more ado, that Death has laid hold of ye already; and is this a time of day, d' ye think, to stand shuffling it off still? Your peremptory hour, I tell ye, is now come, there is no thought of a reprieve in the case of Fate.

[Moral.] "Want of warning is no excuse in the case of Death; for every moment of our lives either is or ought to be a time of preparation for 't."

"De sene Mortem differre volente.

"Senex quidam Mortem, quæ eum è vita ereptura advenerat, rogabat vt paululum differret, dum testamentum conderet, et ctetera ad tantum iter necessaria ppararet. Cui Mors, cur non inquit, hactenus pparasti, toties a me admonitus. Et quum ille earn nunquam a se visam amplius diceret, quum inquit, non æquales tuos modo, quorum nulli ferè iam restant, verum etiam iuuenes, pueros, infantes quotidie rapiebant, non te admonebam mortalitatis tuse? Cum oculos hebescere, auditum minui, cæterosqwue sensus in dies deficere, corpus ingravescere sentiebas, nonne tibi me propinquam esse dicebam? et te admonitum negas. Quare vlterius differendum non est.

"Hæc fabula indicat ita viuendum, quasi mortem semper adesse cernamus."[1]

La Fontaine's fable of "La Mort et le Mourant" (bk. viii. fab. i.) may be compared with the above, together with the following metrical Latin fable, entitled:

"Senex et Mors.

"Annos homo centum qui fere compleverat
Demum advenire Mortem sensit; et, nimis
Properanter illam sic agere secum, querens,
Oravit, ut ne priùs obire cogerit,
Perfecta quàm essent sua quædam negotia:
Saltern expectaret, dum ex nepote filii
Brevì futnras conclusisset nuptiaa ;
Faetoque rite testamento, ab omnibus
Remotam rixis familiam relinqueret :
Quòd si migrandum hinc sibi fuisse tam citò
Prsæmonitus esset . . . Hie senem ultra Mors loqui
Non passa: Funeris habet mille nuntios
Senectus longa, dixit ; et praedam abstulit."[2]

There is also an old French version in the Trois cent soixante et six Apologues d'Esope, par G. Haudent, 1547 (ed. Lorimer, Rouen, 1877), pt. ii. No. 156:

"D'un vieil Homme et de la Mort.

"Comme la mort adiournait vn vieillard
Et pretendoit le naurer de son dard
II lui pria qu'en ce val transitoire
Elle voulsist le laisser viure encoire
Veu qu'il n'auoit adonc testamenté
Aussi qu'en riens ne s'estoit dementé
De preparer ce qu'appartient de faire
Ainsque venir en tel cas & affaire
Luy requerant fort d'auoir patience
Que de son ame & de sa conscience
Eust a penser, auant que le saisir
Et qu'a son corps faire aulcon desplaisir,
Mais ceste mort luy demanda, pourquoy
II n'auoit eu de ce regard en soy
Quand il voyoit chascun coup de ses yeulx
Qu'elle prenoit aultant ieunes que vieulx
Et qu'il n'y a plus aulcun personnage
Qui a present so it viuant de son cage
Qui estoit bien assez pour l'aduertir
Qu'il se debuoit a mourir conuertir,
A quoy ne sceust ce vieillard contredire
Mais s'excusa tant seullement par dire
Qu'il n'auoit veue oncques icelle mort
Insinuant quau vray auroit grand tort
D'ainsi le prendre, a la quelle replicque
A lheure mesme icelle mort replicque
Quand de ton corps la force decliner
T'apparoisoit & tes sentz definer,
N'estoit ce pas chose a toy bien certaine
Que ie venoye et estois fort prochaine
Ouy pour tout vray pourtant estime & croy
Que ie n'auray en riens pitié de toy
Ains te feray mourir presentement
Malgré ton veul & ton consentement."

"Le Moral.

"La fable nous peult demonstrer
Qu' ayons a viure en telle sorte
Que nous estimons rencontrer
Tousiours la mort en nostre porte."

We have two metrical versions in English of "Death's Messengers": (1) in Arwaker's Select Fables, xiv. bk. iv. (1708), based on Abstemius; and (2) in Mr. Piozzi's Autobiography (1785), probably suggested by La Fontaine's fable already referred to.


"The Old Man Loth to Die,


Consider your Latter-end.

"A Wretch, that on the World's uneasy Stage
Had acted long, ev'n to decrepit Age,
At the last Scene, thought he too soon had done ;
And when Death call'd him, begg'd he might stay on.
He said, His greatest Bus'ness was to do
And hop'd the Fates wou'd not surprise him so;
But spare him, that he might provision make
For that long Journey which he was to take.
Death ask'd him why he had that Work deferr'd.
Since he had warn'd him oft' to be prepared.
He answer'd, He had never seen his Eace,
And hop'd he would allow him Days of Grace.
But Death reply'd ; You often saw me near,
My Face in sev'ral Objects did appear;
I have not only your Coevals slain,
'Till but a few, a very few remain;
But Young men, Children, New-born infants too,
And all to caution and admonish you:
All to remind you of your Mortal State,
And that my Coming won'd be sure, tho' late.
When you perceiv'd your Eye-balls sink away,
Your Hearing fail, and ev'ry Sense decay;
When you discern'd your Teeth forsake their Place,
Your wrinkl'd Forehead, and your meagre Face ;
Then you my Visage, in your own, might see,
Which every Day was representing Me.
When you observ'd your Blood begin to freeze,
Your bowing Body, and your bending Knees ;
While scarce your feeble Legs your Weight cou'd bear,
Did not these Symptoms tell you I was near ?
And can you yet pretend to be surpriz'd ?
Then Die, your Folly shou'd be thus chastis'd.
If 'till to-morrow, I your Life reprieve,
You 'till to-morrow will deferr to Live:
As you have done, still you, from Day to Day,
Repentance and Amendment will delay."

"The Moral.

"Since we must Die, but where, is not declar'd,
We shou'd for Death's Approach be still prepar'd:
Our Life's uncertain: Time shou'd so be pass'd,
As if each Minute was to be our last:
Since on the Way in which our Lives we spend,
Our future Joys, or Miseries, depend;
They best for Heav'ns reserv'd Abodes prepare.
Who Living, keep their Conversation there.
They who in Endless Pleasures wou'd on High
For ever Live, to Sin must daily die.
If our Repentance we procrastinate,
Our good Desires at last, will be too late.
Virtue has got the Start in Life's swift Race,
And, to o'ertake her, we must mend our Pace ;
Else, what we shou'd obtain, we ne'r shall find,
While she still keeps before, and we behind."


"The Three Warnings.

"A Tale.

"The tree of deepest root is found
Least willing still to quit the ground;
'Twas therefore said by ancient sages,
That love of life increased with years.
So much, that in our latter stages,
When pains grow sharp, and sickness rages,
The greatest love of life appears.
This great affection to believe,
Which all confess, but few perceive.
If old affections can't prevail,
Be pleased to hear a modern tale.
When Sports went round, and all were gay,
On neighbour Dobson's wedding-day,
Death call'd aside the jocund groom,
With him into another room:
And looking grave, You must, says he,
Quit your sweet bride and come with me.
With you, and quit my Susan's side?
With you! the hapless husband cried;
Young as I am; 'tis monstrous hard;
Besides, in truth, I'm not prepared:
My thoughts on other matters go.
This is my wedding-night you know.
What more he urged, I have not heard,
His reasons could not well be stronger,
So Death the poor delinquent spared.
And left to live a little longer.
Yet calling up a serious look,
His hour-glass tumbled while he spoke.
Neighbour, he said, farewell! No more
Shall Death disturb your mirthful hour.
And further to avoid all blame
Of cruelty upon my name,
To give you time for preparation,
And fit you for your future station,
Three several warnings you shall have.
Before you're summoned to the grave:
Willing, for once, I'll quit my prey.
And grant a kind reprieve;
In hopes you'll have no more to say,
But when I call again this way,
Well pleas'd the world will leave.
To these conditions both consented,
And parted perfectly contented.
What next the hero of our tale befell.
How long he lived, how wise, how well.
How roundly he pursued his course,
And smok'd his pipe and strok'd his horse
The willing muse shall tell:
He chaffer'd then, he bought, he sold,
Nor once perceived his growing old,
Nor thought of Death as near:
His friends not false, his wife no shrew,
Many his gains, his children few,
He pass'd his hours in peace;
But while he view'd his wealth increase,
While thus along life's dusty road,
The beaten track content he trod,
Old Time, whose haste no mortal spares
Uncall'd, unheeded, unawares,
Brought him on his eightieth year.
And now one night in musing mood.
As all alone he sate,
Th' unwelcome messenger of fate
Once more before him stood.
Half stilled with anger and surprise,
So soon return'd! old Dobson cries.
So soon, d'ye call it! Death replies.
Surely, my friend, you're but in jest;
Since I was here before
'Tis six-and-thirty years at least,
And you are now four-score.
So much the worse, the clown rejoin'd.
To spare the aged would be kind;
However, see your search be legal,
And your authority—Is't regal?
Else you are come on a fool's errand.
With but a secretary's warrant.
Besides, you promised me three warnings,
Which I have looked for nights and mornings;
But for that loss of time and ease
I can recover damages.
I know, cries Death, that at the best,
I seldom am a welcome guest;
But don't be captious, friend, at least;
I little thought you'd still be able
To stump about your farm and stable;
Your years have run to a great length,
I wish you joy tho' of your strength.
Hold, says the farmer, not so fast,
I have been lame these four years past.
And no great wonder, Death replies;
However, you still keep your eyes,
And sure to see one's loves and friends,
For legs and arms would make amends.
Perhaps, says Dobson, so it might,
But, latterly, I've lost my sight.
This is a shocking story, faith.
Yet there's soroe comfort still, says Death;
Each strives your sadness to amuse,
I warrant you have all the news.
There's none, cries he, and if there were,
I've grown so deaf, I could not hear.
Nay, then, the spectre stern rejoined,
These are unjustifiable yearnings;
If you are lame, and deaf, and blind,
You've had your three suffiicient warnings;
So come along, no more we'll part;
He said, and touched him with his dart;
And now old Dobson, turning pale,
Yields to his fate—so ends my tale."

The subject is one that naturally attracts the attention of the preacher and moralist. In Hampole's Pricke of Conscience (1340), ll. 2020, 2024 we have the following allusion to it:

"Bot I rede a man he amende hym here,
Or þe dede (Death) come, or his messangere;

· · · · · ·

His messangere may be called seknes."

In A Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence, by William Bullein (1578), Mors thus addresses Civis:

"You are well ouertaken, I am glad that wee are mette together; I have seen you since you were borne; I have threatened you in all your sicknesse, but you did neuer see me nor remembred me before this daie."—(P. 115., Early English Text Society's Extra Series, No. lii.)

Cf. the following passage from the sermons of J. Gerson, Antwerp, 1706, vol. iii. col. 914:

"Vides signa judicii tui per vniversum corpus tuum et animam tuam: caput tuum floret et fit canum lumen oculorum debilitatur memoria defecit, ingenium induratur."

A modern divine, addressing his youthful hearers, says: "The first grey hair upon our heads is Death's finger laid upon our brow; the first failure in our agility or our sensational acuteness is Death's message to us."[3]

The following is a nineteenth-century version of the parable by the headmaster of one of our public schools:

"Death, says the story, and a certain man once made a bargain, the man stipulating that Death should send him so many warnings before he came. And one day, years thereafter, to his great amazement the King of Terrors stood before him. He had broken the bargain, so said the man, while he clung eagerly to life. Death, he alleged, had sent him no warnings.

"'No warnings!' was the answer; his eyes were dim, and his ears dull of hearing, his gums were toothless, and on his bent and palsied head his grey locks were all but gone, these, the Heralds of Deaths had come to him, but their voices had been unnoticed."[4]

It is worth noting that both Dr. Jessop and Dr. Percival refer only to one messenger—old age—leaving out the fact that the sickness and death of others are equally "Heralds of Death."

Grey hairs, as one of Death's messengers, is referred to in the Anwâr-i-Sahailî, of which there is a French translation by David Sahid, of Ispahan, under the title of Livre des Lumières ou la conduite des Royes, composé par le sage Pilpay (Paris, 1644).

I give the passage from Eastwick's translation (p. 72):

"When the changing watch of age strikes the drum of deep distress
The heart grows cold to joyous things, to mirth and happiness,
The white hair comes, its message gives from Fate and terror's king.
And the crooked hack and stooping form Death's salutation bring."

In the Mahâdeva-jâtaka (No. 9, I. 173) we read: "These grey hairs that have come upon my head are Death's messengers appearing to me." (See Dhammapada, v. 235.)

Death's messengers in Päli is Deva-dûtâ = Yama-dûtâ = Maccu-dûtâ.

Yama is, of course, Death, the ruler of the lower world.

The messengers of Death are three: Old Age, Sickness, and Mortality.

The earliest form of the fable is that found in the Anguttara-Nikâya, iii. 35, pp. 138-142 (ed. Morris for the Pali Text Society), where it is used by Buddha to point a moral. The following is an abstract of the Pâli:

When an evil-liver in word, deed, and thought, says Buddha, disappeared from this world, and underwent re-birth in hell, he was brought before Yama, who sharply interrogated and questioned him. "Did you see Death's first messenger?" he asked. "I did not," replied the sinner. "What! did you never see an old man or woman bent down with age, palsied, wrinkled, and grey-headed?" "I have seen such a one," answered the man. "Did not you, a man of mature age and intelligence, take note that you were subject to old age, and would not escape it; and did you thereupon determine to conduct yourself well in word, deed, and thought?" "Through remissness, I did not take note of this," replied the man. Then Yama questioned the culprit as to Death's second messenger (the sight of a man or woman suffering from sickness and disease, or bedridden); and lastly, as to the third messenger—a dead man or woman in various stages of corruption. In each case the offender had to confess that, through negligence, he had not applied the sickness and mortality of his fellow-creatures to his own case. For his remissness he was condemned by Yama to the severest tortures, and handed over to hell's warders to undergo the sentence uttered against him.

The account of Buddha's "drives" previous to the "great renunciation" points the same moral lesson—namely, that old age, sickness, and death remind us that we are mortal (see Anguttara-Nikâya, iii. 38, 39). As the story of Buddha's life was well known very early in Europe through the popular versions of Balaam and Josaphat, it was probably through this channel that the legend of "Death's Messenger" found its way into the fable literature of Europe. It does not occur in the Jâtaka book, the Panca-Tantra, or the Kalilag and Damnag literature.

There seem to be four distinct versions:

(1.) The Buddhist sermon in the Anguttara.
(2.) The classical version, like that of Camerarius, directly borrowed from a Buddhist source.
(3.) The popular version, touched up by the moralist, like that by Abstemius.
(4.) Modern versions, like that of La Fontaine’s and Mrs. Thrale’s.

  1. See also No. 99 in Mythologla Æsopica, by Neveletus (Franc. 1610).
  2. See Fabulæ Æsopiæ, by F. J. Desbillons, Bk. vii. No. xxiii. (Manheim, 17G8). Cf. L'Hore di ricreatione, p. 195, by Lodovico Guicciardini (Venice, 1580), or Heures de recreation et après disnées, by L. G. 1605, p. 139.
  3. See Dr. Jessop's Norwich School Sermons, 1864, p. 169.
  4. Some Helps for School Life, by J. Percival, M.A., LL.D., 1880, pp. 121, 122.