Customs And Traditions, I Am An Expat

The Trickster Figure Of The Devil In Polish Literature


Kid World Citizen is doing a round-up of Trickster figures around the world. I love the Trickster and it is one of my very favourite characters types: unpredictable, and not without a sense of humour. They make for great turning points in the story.

When I hear about the trickster figure around the world project, I immediately thought of the devil. Usually seen as the impersonation of evil, in Polish- and Slavic literature, he has acquired some folkore characteristics, making him an almost likeable character. Moreover, many tricksters were gods of some kind so I believe that the devils fits right here into this category.

In fact, there are two words for the devil: “diabeł”- which describes more of a demon than pure evil. Only later has this demon been associated with “szatan” pronounced “shatan)- the evil devil from the Bible.

The Polish devil, or devils (there are several of them), are dressed like Polish noblemen (although when Poland became annexed by Prussia, Russia and Austria, the devil is also dressed like a stranger, foreigner. His clothes are usually to hide his tail and or horns.

In many Polish stories, the devil is not necessarily evil, on the contrary, he is sometimes shown to be better than humans. For example, he would steal flour from the mills in the night and give it to poor people.

The most famous Polish devil is Boruta. It is said that the devil was developed from a rather friendly Slavic forest demon, boruta. He is associated with the town of Łęczyca and is even considered the city’s symbol. Rokita is another famous Polish devil from the city of Kalisz.

Their job is usually to promise riches uncounted in return for somebody’s soul.

In the Polish tale of the fern flower (a mythical flower that only grows once a year, in Summer Solstice), the devil promises the flower (told to bring fortune to anyone who finds it), to a young boy, provided that he won’t share the money with anyone- and in other versions that he don’t turn back while going home with his treasure. In both cases, the boy is not able to keep his promise and turns back to his village confused and considered crazy, saying to himself: “Now I have neither my gold nor a soul”.

Sometimes, however, it is the trickster who gets tricked. One of the greatest poems I had to learn at school, is “Pani Twardowska”, Lady Twardowska. I can still remember huge chunks of it by heart.

Twardowski is often called “The Polish Faust”. Just like his German counterpart, Twardowski sold his soul to the devil in return for wisdoms and riches. The “transaction” was to be performed in Rome where Twardwoski never planned to go . However, when the devil rises from Twardowski’s glass in a tavern, it turns out that the tavern was called “Rome”. In return, Twardowski decides to give the devil three impossible tasks to complete. The devil however finishes the two of them. The third however, spending a whole year with Twardowski’s wife Twardowska is too much for the poor devil and so Twardowski keeps his soul.

Here’s the original Polish text of Pani Twardowska– and here is a great presentation for the Comenius project about this very poem, with great drawings by students.

It seems that there is more to the devil that meets the eye- at least in Polish literature. You wouldn’t consider him a likeable character, but somehow that’s exactly how he manages to come across in these stories.

The image in this post comes from the book, “Baśnie nie z tego miasta”.

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  • Reply Ilze January 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    I had never thought of the devil figure as the trickster but after reading your post I realized that also in the Latvian folklore the devil is not really that evil.
    And, speaking of fern flowers, we look for them on solstice too, at least that’s the expression most people would use to explain why a couple disappears for a long nature walk on the midsummer’s night 🙂 Accordingly, children born 9 months later, i.e. in March, are sometimes referred to as “fern babies” 🙂
    Ilze recently posted…Rīga 2014 – Force MajeureMy Profile

    • Reply European Mama January 17, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you Ilze for your comment! I have also read that the fern flower is popular in Latvian and Lithuanian floklore… and as for the devil, in books he is really quite ambigous, being evil but exposing human evil all at the same time… It’s the same in the book “Master and Margarita” by Russian writer Mikhail Bulhakov.

  • Reply Becky January 17, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Awesome- I have been reading a lot of Trickster Tales, and this is the first time I see the devil coming up! It is fascinating because one of the points of these folktales is to teach children the virtues within a community. It makes sense that a devil would do so! I also found it fascinating that he would take the form of a Polish noblemen or even a stranger (or foreigner).

    Thank you so much for participating! I am learning so much from these posts…
    Becky recently posted…2014 World Calendar of Global Holidays and FestivalsMy Profile

  • Reply Trickster Tales Around the World January 18, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    […] who writes on The European Mama, shares the intriguing use of the devil as a trickster in Polish, Slavic, Latvian and other Eastern […]

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