November 02, 2014

The Devil Builds A Barn

Although Halloween has sadly passed, the nights and weather are only going to get darker and gloomier from here on. It's still the season for spooky stories! Here's one from 19th century Massachusetts about the Devil himself.


A poor farmer living out in the country wanted a barn. He had a house and a couple small sheds, but no barn. Unfortunately he was just too poor to build one.

His desire for a barn must have been very strong, because the Devil caught wind of it. One night when the farmer was alone the Devil came to his house.

"I'll build you a barn", the Evil One said. "All you have to do is give me your soul when you die. Doesn't that sound like a bargain?"

The farmer may have been poor, but he was smart. He had heard tales of bargains made with the Devil. The tales usually didn't end well.

After thinking for a while, the farmer said, "I'll give you my soul... if you can build the barn before the first rooster crows in the morning. Deal?"

"Deal," the Devil said. They shook hands to seal it. The Devil's hand was hot like a frying pan.

The Devil immediately set to work. The farmer could hear him hammering and sawing away in the darkness. It sounded like the barn was going to be a good one.

It was just before sunrise, and the Devil was very nearly done. While the Evil One hammered away to finish the barn on time, the farmer snuck out his back door to the shed where he kept his chickens. He crowed like a rooster. This woke up his actual rooster, which crowed in response.

The Devil hadn't quite completed the barn, so he didn't get the farmer's soul. After he angrily vanished in a cloud of brimstone the farmer finished the last remaining details of the barn. He felt pretty good for outsmarting the Devil.

His satisfaction didn't last long. It turned out the roof leaked, the doors didn't close properly, and the whole structure fell apart within a year. But then what else would you expect from a barn built by the Devil?


I like this story. It's short, sweet, and to the point. It was told to Clifton Johnson in the late 19th century, and he included it in his book What They Say in New England (1896).  The motif of cheating an evil supernatural being who's building something for you is much older than the 19th century, though.

When I read this story I'm reminded of the old Norse myth telling how the gods hired a giant to build the walls around Asgard. They made a bargain with the giant. If he could build the wall in only one winter, with the help only of his horse, the gods would give him the goddess Freya, the sun and the moon. They made this bargain because they assumed even a giant couldn't finish a huge wall in just three months. After all, his only assistant was a horse.

Unfortunately for the gods, it turned out that the giant's horse was magical and was able to lay stones and spread mortar with its hooves. Things looked bad, but the trickster god Loki came up with a plan. Just before the wall was done, and just before winter ended, Loki turned himself into a beautiful mare. The beautiful mare lured the giant's horse off into the woods, and the giant was unable to finish the wall on time. Not only did he not get the sun, moon and the goddess Freya, but Thor smashed his head in with a hammer. Ouch! 

The gods got a 98% completed wall, and many months later Loki returned from the woods carrying the magical eight-legged colt that he had given birth to.

That might have been a little bit of a tangent, but I think you can see how the two stories are related.  New England folklore is just a little more bare bones than Norse mythology!

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