The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs

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The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
Folk tale
NameThe Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
Aarne-Thompson grouping
  • ATU 930 (The Prophecy; Poor Boy shall marry Rich Girl)
  • ATU 461 (Three Hairs of the Devil)
Published inKinder- und Hausmärchen, by the Brothers Grimm
RelatedThe King Who Would Be Stronger Than Fate

"The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" (German: Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren) is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm (KHM 29).[1] It falls under Aarne-Thompson classification types 461 ("three hairs from the devil"),[2] and 930 ("prophecy that a poor boy will marry a rich girl").[3][4]

The story was first translated into English as "The Giant and the Three Golden Hairs", to avoid offense, but the devil in the story does indeed act like a folklore giant.[5] Ruth Manning-Sanders included it, as "The Three Golden Hairs of the King of the Cave Giants", in A Book of Giants.


A poor woman gave birth to a son with a caul (where the amniotic sac is still intact at birth), which was interpreted to mean that he would marry the king's daughter at fourteen years of age. The wicked king, hearing of it, visited the family and persuaded them to allow him to bring the boy back and raise him in the castle. Instead, he put the boy in a box and threw the box into the water, so that he would drown and not grow up to marry his daughter. But rather than sink, it drifted down to a mill, where it was found by the miller and his wife. The two decided to raise the boy on their own.

Fourteen years later, the king happened to visit the mill inadvertently. Upon seeing the boy, the king asked the miller if he was his father, who then explained the story of how he and his wife had come to raise the boy. Shocked, the king devised a way to rid himself of the boy once and for all. He gave the young man a sealed letter and instructed him to deliver it to the queen. Inside, the letter commanded that the boy be killed and buried once he arrived. On his way to deliver the letter, the boy sought shelter in an old woman's house for the night. Despite her warnings that robbers frequented the house, the boy fell asleep, claiming he could walk no further. When the bandits arrived, they read the letter and took pity on the boy. Without waking him, they put a new letter in its place, dictating that the boy should marry the king's daughter upon his arrival. When the morning came, they pointed him in the direction of the castle and he went on his way.

The wedding proceeded, and when the king returned, he dispatched the boy to travel into Hell and return with three of the Devil's golden hairs, in yet another effort to rid himself of his new son-in-law.

The boy is confronted with three questions on his journey, as he travels between two towns and across the river. When passing through each, he is asked his trade ("what he knows"). The boy responds thrice, "I know everything." He is then asked why the first town's well, which once sprung forth wine, no longer dispenses even water. In the second town, he is asked why a tree that once produced golden apples will not even sprout leaves. When being ferried across the river, the ferryman asks him why he must always row back and forth, and is not free to do otherwise. To each question he replies, "You shall know that, only when I come back."

The boy finds the entrance to Hell on the other side of the river and, upon entering, finds only the Devil's grandmother. He tells her what he wants, and she promises to assist him how she can, turning him into an ant and hiding him in the folds of the clothing. The Devil returns and, despite smelling human flesh in the air, is convinced to sit down, eat, and drink. Once he has done so, he lays his head in his grandmother's lap and falls into an inebriated sleep. She plucks a golden hair from his head three times, causing him to awaken after every hair pulled. Having assumed the pain was part of his dreams, he recounts his visions to his grandmother- a dried-up well in a town square with a toad underneath blocking the flow of liquid, a tree that does not sprout fruit or leaves because of a mouse gnawing at its root, and a ferryman who can be freed merely by placing his oar in the hands of another man on the river's bank.

The next morning, once the Devil had left the dwelling again, the boy was transformed back into his former self. Thanking the old woman, he took the three golden hairs and set off for home. Once again, he passed the river and two cities, disclosing the answers he had overheard the Devil speak of during the night. Each town gives him a pair of asses laden with gold, which he brings back with him to the castle. The king, pleased by the boy's return with such wealth, allows him to live in peace with his wife. He inquires on the source of the wealth he acquired, hoping to find some for himself. The boy tells him the gold was found across the river.

The story ends with the king crossing the river with the ferryman, who hands him the oar upon reaching the other side, condemning him to a life of ferrying travellers back and forth forever.


Folklorist Stith Thompson comments that the first part of the tale (birth of boy predestined to marry princess/rich girl), classified as ATU 930, is often found coupled together with the second part, the impossible task of getting the hair from the Devil (or giant, ogre, etc.).[6]

The motif of the old man ferrying the poor boy/hero across the sea to the Devil (in Grimm's version; a giant, ogre, in other variants) parallels the mythological journey to "The Otherworld" (Hell) on the boat.[7]

The motif of frogs blocking the flow of waters has several parallels studied by Andrew Lang.[8][9] Lang suggests this motif may descend from the ancient Indo-European myth of a hero or thunder god slaying a serpent or dragon that blocks the flow of waters.[10]

The Brothers Grimm collected a tale in the first edition of their compilation with the name Der Vogel Phönix (English: "The Phoenix Bird"), where the hero was found by a miller in a box cast into the water and he is tasked with getting three feathers from the "Phoenix Bird", who lives in a hut atop a mountain in the company of an old lady.[11]


"The Devil with The Three Golden Hairs" is noted to have been a possible influence for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, in which the elf-king Thingol sets an impossible task for his daughter's mortal suitor: to obtain one of the three Silmarils from the Iron Crown of Morgoth.[12] Despite these similarities, however, the differences remain substantial: in Tolkien's version, the king's daughter attends the hero along the way, following him as a giant bat; there are no towns and no riddles, as well as no ferryman; once Beren has wrested a silmaril from the iron crown, he loses it by having his hand bitten off by a giant wolf, and ends up returning to the king with no jewels at all. The king at last allows Beren to wed his daughter, and ultimately obtains the silmaril by having his hunters track down and slay the wolf, cutting the burning jewel from its belly, a sequence which has no analogy in the German fairy tale. The king is later slain by dwarves he had employed to set the jewel into a necklace for him. The similarities which can be traced through both stories may be the result of themes common to many human stories as outlined in the book

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ashliman, D. L. (2020). "Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)". University of Pittsburgh.
  2. ^ Risto, Järv. (2005). The Gender of the Heroes, Storytellers and Collectors of Estonian Fairy Tales. Folklore (Tartu). 29. 10.7592/FEJF2005.29.gender.
  3. ^ Radulovic, Nemanja. (2014). Fate Written on the Forehead in Serbian Oral Narratives. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore. 59. 29-44. 10.7592/FEJF2014.59.radulovic.
  4. ^ Gogiashvili, Elene. (2018). Elene Gogiashvili Women against Death: Georgian Folktales in Context of Oriental and Occidental Paradigms In: Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Faculty of Humanities, Institute of Georgian History, Proceedings XIV (2018).
  5. ^ Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 157. W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  6. ^ Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. University of California Press. 1977. pp. 205-211 and 286. ISBN 0-520-03537-2
  7. ^ Čechová, Mariana; Klimková, Simona. Studi Slavistici; Florence Vol. 16, (2019): 77-89. DOI:10.13128/Studi_Slavis-7474
  8. ^ Frazer, James G. "The Language of Animals". In: Archaeological Review. Vol. I. No. 3. May, 1888. D. Nutt. 1888. p. 161.
  9. ^ Lang, Andrew. Myth, Ritual and Religion. Vol. I. London: Longmans, Green. 1906. pp. 42-46.
  10. ^ Lang, Andrew. Myth, Ritual and Religion. Vol. I. London: Longmans, Green. 1906. pp. 44-45.
  11. ^ Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, JACK ZIPES, and ANDREA DEZSÖ. "THE BIRD PHOENIX." In: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. pp. 241-42. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Accessed August 28, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctt6wq18v.82.
  12. ^ Dickerson, Matthew; O’Hara, David (2006). From Homer to Harry Potter. Brazos Press. pp. 141–2. ISBN 978-1-44120-214-7.