The Devil with Three Golden Hairs

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs is an intriguing story of life, dealing with themes of superstition, the fearlessness of youth, and overcoming deception and greed. “The heroism of fairy tale orphans lies in their ability to survive and transform their fate, and so outwit those who do them harm without losing their lives, their souls, or their humanity in the process” (Terri Windling). This story is very similar to a Serbian story, “The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars” in Andrew Lang’s The Violet Fairy Book. There are similar stories from Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway, Hungary and Mongolia. In some variants of the story, obtaining three feathers from a phoenix-bird is the task.

Among the ordinary people like parents, millers, and the miller’s boy, we also meet some interesting archetypal characters, in particular the Orphan, the King, the Ferryman, the Devil’s Grandmother and the Devil himself.

In Greek mythology, the Ferryman’s name was Charon, who was the son of Erebus, the embodiment of darkness, and Nyx the Goddess of Night. He ferried the souls of the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron, for a fee (like in Chris De Bergh's song, "Don't pay the ferryman, Until he gets you to the other side").

In Norse mythology Odin is the god of war and death. However, the hero in our story needs to get back across this river, to the world of the living. So he uses his cunning not to change places with the Ferryman on his way back from his visit with the Devil.



Caul A baby is born with a caul when the amniotic sac sticks to the baby’s face, head or body. It can be carefully removed and preserved, and has significance in many cultures.

“The superstition of the caul is also indigenous to Iceland; a spirit is said to dwell in it which accompanies the child its whole life through, on which account the caul is carefully preserved and concealed. In Belgium it is called a helmet (helm) and according to whether it is red, or pale or blackish in colour, they infer the child’s future fortunes.” (Surlalune – Margaret Hunt’s Notes)

Superstitions surrounding the caul include:

  • Protection from drowning – up until the 19th century cauls were offered for sale in newspapers, mostly bought by sailors.
  • The caul-bearer is born to lead or have special powers
  • Or is doomed to be a vampire
  • Or have psychic abilities and good luck.

Esther Harding in her book, Woman’s Mysteries, defines superstition as projecting a subjective meaning onto an objective fact. Humans do this because of their imaginal and feeling capacities.

Orphan stories There appear to be different categories of orphan stories; those whose parent or parents have died e.g. Cinderella; those who have been sent away e.g. Hansel and Gretel (I am also reminded of the little rabbit with wings, Pookie); and those who have been stolen, or taken under false pretences or trickery e.g. Rapunzel, and the boy in our story The Devil with Three Golden Hairs.

The King – tried to get rid of the boy three times. The characteristics of this king are murderous, interfering, devious, greedy and two-faced. Archetypally a king represents the epitome of masculine power and authority in the temporal sphere. He can be wise and benevolent or despotic and wicked. Robert Munafo describes a King’s life as in balance when he has the Courage of the Warrior, Passion of the Lover and Wisdom of the Magician; then “his kingdom – the world - prospers. When he is out of balance the world suffers”. One of the shadow sides of the king is Tyrant, manifested by ‘not speaking personally’ – he sends a letter to the Queen, - and ‘making demands’, a) that the boy be killed with no reason given, and b) demands an impossible task of the boy.

The Boy – our hero, brought up as a foundling, his first good luck was to have good foster parents. On the cusp of adulthood, he is foisted on a journey – and falls among thieves. He escapes unharmed, protected in fact by the robbers’ pity; ‘it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good’. Then he has to fulfil the ‘impossible task’ of returning from the Devil’s domain in the Underworld, not to win his bride but to keep her! Through his wits and cunning he overcomes many obstacles and eventually returns to topple the bad king.

He is very confident. He is not afraid of the thieves, or the Devil or the King. He knows everything – a common attribute of youth! It would seem his luck is holding – but this ‘invincibility of youth’ is now being discovered to be due to the longer maturation process of the brain than was previously understood. Yes he is vulnerable to the consequences of his risk-taking, and, I fantasise, he has the experience of good parental guidance in his life so far to use his nous.

This boy agreed to be turned into an ant – risky, as he could have been squished. He was willing to be made small and humble in order to gain the knowledge he needed. Ants usually signify intuition and instinct in story – for instance in Psyche and Eros, and Vasilissa the Brave. If, as in dream-work, we consider each character in the story as parts of ourselves, the boy’s Underworld encounter with the Devil, his grandmother and the ant would give him more wisdom than he had bargained for!

The Devil – “In Jungian terms the Devil represents the ‘shadow’, that part of our psyche we would rather ignore, the tiresome bit we see in everyone else but never in ourselves” (Juliette Sharman-Burke) – to be faced and acknowledged before we can use its formidable energy.

The Devil’s grandmother seems to have some considerable influence over her grandson!

“The Devil’s mother or grandmother is spoken of in German mythology. Here she is good-natured and helps the oppressed, as in the English story of Jack and the Beanstalk” In Northumberland and South Wales there are stories of the devil’s grandmother coming to a sticky end for “helping others to outwit him”. (Surlalune – Margaret Hunt’s Notes). In Russian fairy tales Baba Yaga is said to be the devil’s grandmother.

The Market-Fountain and the toad. Before the days of water taps in every house people drew their water from the village fountain or well (they still do in many countries). The hidden toad is therefore poisoning the water for everyone in the community. None of us are immune from what happens in the collective sphere.

The Golden Apple Tree and the mouse. The golden apple is a frequent motif in fairy tales. In Greek mythology it grows in Hera’s orchard and is tended by the Hesperides, three daughters of Atlas, and guarded by a dragon (Wikipedia). The golden apple is said to give immortality. It also appears in Norse mythology where it is the source of the gods’ immortality. An interesting twist is that in some European languages the word for orange is golden apple. If the roots of a tree are destroyed the whole tree is affected. A mouse is a little animal that can have a big impact.

Ferryman In our story the ferryman is unhappy in his situation. He does not want to be there and he cannot see a way out. He is stuck. All he has to do to free himself is to hand the oar to someone else.

In mythology Heracles, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dionysus and Psyche all return from their journeys to the Underworld.


Juliette Sharman-Burke: The Complete Book of Tarot, Pan Books, 1985.

M. Esther Harding: Woman’s Mysteries, Harper & Row, 1976.

Robert Munafo -

Terri Windling - : Margaret Hunt’s Notes – Margaret was the earliest accurate translator of Grimm’s stories into English.

Reflection Questions

These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with.

I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  • Apple tree/mouse: Could a mouse be gnawing away at your vitality? If so what does the mouse represent in your life? What needs to change for you to regain your vitality?
  • Market fountain/toad: What does the toad that is poisoning your community well(being) represent? What is sucking you dry? Could it be the corporate greed that is affecting the whole world right now? What about my own selfishness, how is that affecting others around me?
  • Ferryman/oar: How long have you been stuck down there ferrying the dead?  What is it that you need to hand over so you can be free to return to the land of the living?
  • Where in your life do you need to use your wit and cunning?
  • What support can you give to a young person as he or she negotiates adolescence?