Have you Made a Deal with the Devil?

Kathryn WilsonSymbolic World Icon
May 9, 2023

Have you made a deal with the Devil? Probably not. Let’s be honest, neither you nor I are likely powerful enough to warrant his attention. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t been brokering deals with principalities. Most of us do. I dare say, all of us must. Let’s explore this question by delving into an ancient folk tale, The Tale of Rumpelstiltskin. This is one of our oldest stories, dating back between 2,500-6,000 years, making its literary neighbors The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beauty and the Beast1. Of Indo-European origin, this tale has more than stood the test of time as it continues to make regular appearances in modern collections of children’s stories. Let’s start by unpacking this framing narrative and then use what we discover to uncover and consider what kind of principalities we have been dealing with, perhaps beyond our own awareness.

There was once a miller who was poor, but he had one beautiful daughter. It happened one day that he came to speak with the king, and, to give himself consequence, he told him that he had a daughter who could spin gold out of straw. The king said to the miller: “That is an art that pleases me well; if thy daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to my castle to-morrow, that I may put her to the proof.”

We can see already that the girl in this story has the great misfortune of being the daughter of a very foolish man. Here’s a free pro-tip for life: Don’t lie to the king. Here’s another: The glory of women is to be guarded, not flaunted before strange men (See the story of Vashti and Esther3 to extend and explore this principle). The folly of the father in this story sets his daughter up for an impossible scenario.

When the girl was brought to him, he led her into a room that was quite full of straw, and gave her a wheel and spindle, and said: “Now set to work, and if by the early morning thou hast not spun this straw to gold thou shalt die.” And he shut the door himself, and left her there alone. And so the poor miller’s daughter was left there sitting, and could not think what to do for her life: she had no notion of how to set to work to spin gold from straw, and her distress grew so great that she began to weep.

So, we have a Foolish Father and an Evil King. The stage is set. Our protagonist, the hapless girl, seems incapable of solving this problem.

“Then all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, who said: “Good evening, miller’s daughter; why are you crying?”

What does it mean that the King himself has shut the door and that Rumplestiltskin has opened it? Remember that folk tales like these were handed down orally until some cataloguer of tales, such as the Grimm Brothers, comes along and writes them down. That means that there is an intense economy of word and thought so that only what is essential is handed down in the story. Every detail is significant. So, the detail that the King has shut the door on the girl is significant because it shows the unassailable nature of the girl’s predicament. He is the highest authority. There is no recourse. In the King’s Kingdom what he shuts is shut, what he loosens is loosed and what he decrees is law. But. Rumplestiltskin opens the door. This is an excellent literary device to show us that Rumplestiltskin is definitely not a part of the King’s Kingdom. He may move within it, even having access to a chamber within the King’s own castle, but he is certainly not a part of the bounded order that is the King’s domain.

“Oh!” answered the girl, “I have got to spin gold out of straw, and I don’t understand the business.” Then the little man said: “What will you give me if I spin it for you?” – “My necklace,” said the girl. The little man took the necklace, seated himself before the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr! three times round and the bobbin was full; then he took up another, and whirr, whirr, whirr! three times round, and that was full; and so he went on till the morning, when all the straw had been spun, and all the bobbins were full of gold.

At sunrise came the king, and when he saw the gold he was astonished and very much rejoiced, for he was very avaricious. He had the miller’s daughter taken into another room filled with straw, much bigger than the last, and told her that as she valued her life she must spin it all in one night. The girl did not know what to do, so she began to cry, and then the door opened, and the little man appeared and said: “What will you give me if I spin all this straw into gold?”

“The ring from my finger,” answered the girl. So the little man took the ring, and began again to send the wheel whirring round, and by the next morning all the straw was spun into glistening gold.

Now, one might forgive the girl the first night for her acceptance of such an odd deal. But surely by the second night the girl ought to ask herself why the little man would be willing to both work hard and give her so much benefit – a room full of golden thread – simply for a small piece of jewelry. This is a very unfair trade for the small man. Surely, if he simply wanted jewelry he could purchase as much as he liked with such an alchemical skill. Perhaps desperation drives the girl, but to accept such a deal without question is ludicrously foolish.

It is worth noting that the alchemical skill is not only a further sign that Rumplestiltskin is not bound by the King’s order (pun intended), but also shows why he is not bound thus. Rumplestiltskin can change reality. We don’t know why and we don’t know how. But, through nature or skill, Rumplestiltskin is neither bound by the king’s order nor by the order of Nature.

The king rejoiced beyond measure at the sight, but as he could never have enough of gold, he had the miller’s daughter taken into a still larger room full of straw, and said: “This, too, must be spun in one night, and if you accomplish it you shall be my wife.” For he thought: “Although she is but a miller’s daughter, I am not likely to find any one richer in the whole world.” As soon as the girl was left alone, the little man appeared for the third time and said: “What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time?” – “I have nothing left to give,” answered the girl. “Then you must promise me the first child you have after you are queen,” said the little man. “But who knows whether that will happen?” thought the girl; but as she did not know what else to do in her necessity, she promised the little man what he desired, upon which he began to spin, until all the straw was gold. And when in the morning the king came and found all done according to his wish, he caused the wedding to be held at once, and the miller’s pretty daughter became a queen.

Well. It seemed to have worked. Although what girl would like to marry the man who had locked her up on the serious threat of death if she did not produce the impossible is beyond me. Much better to run away to the nearest neighboring nation. But, in her defense, it is awfully hard to say no to a king.

In a year’s time she brought a fine child into the world, and thought no more of the little man; but one day he came suddenly into her room, and said: “Now give me what you promised me.” The queen was terrified greatly, and offered the little man all the riches of the kingdom if he would only leave the child; but the little man said: “No, I would  rather have something living than all the treasures of the world.” Then the queen began to lament and to weep, so that the little man had pity upon her. “I will give you three days,” said he, “and if at the end of that time you cannot tell my name, you must give up the child to me.”

Ah! A loophole. A chance for salvation. I love it.

As we build our framework in understanding these bargains with principalities, I cannot emphasize enough the weight of the fiend’s words here. He would rather have something living than all the treasures of the world. So, he is able to alter physical reality, or at least our perception of it, but the creation and/or obtaining of life is beyond him.

Then the queen spent the whole night in thinking over all the names that she had ever heard, and sent a messenger through the land to ask far and wide for all the names that could be found. And when the little man came next day, (beginning with Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar) she repeated all she knew, and went through the whole list, but after each the little man said: “That is not my name.” The second day the queen sent to inquire of all the neighbours what the servants were called, and told the little man all the most unusual and singular names, saying: “Perhaps you are called Roast-ribs, or Sheepshanks, or Spindleshanks?” But he answered nothing but: “That is not my name.”

The new Queen has searched the entire hierarchy of identities to discover who this might be. She starts with Caspar, Melichior, and Balthazar. According to 6th Century Alexandrian Christian tradition, these are the names of the Magi who visit Christ in his infancy and offer him Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh4. These are ancient men of power and magic from the Zoroastrian priestly caste: the sorcerers of the East. They represent those who might have power in the heavens. But this miracle-worker is not a mage. (Of course, these names would not have been present in the original formulation of this tale. These were a later insertion/replacement so that the story would be contextualized for its later German audience).

Next the Queen riffles through the names of her servants and the common-man. Having searched the heavens, she turns her eye to the edges of the earth, the base and the banal. She proposes the names Spindleshanks, Sheepshanks, and Roastribs. These all fixate on his physical nature. He is represented as a dwarf with the characteristic limb abnormalities that are present with the genetic profile. They also set him aside as both being on the edges of normal society and perhaps at the very bottom of society (in an older social structure). She focuses on the most basic identity possible: to be made equivalent to one’s most basic elements (physical appearance) and also those characteristics that separates the person from identifying easily with broader society. This is the very bottom of the hierarchy of logi (identity). By pointing to the identities at the top and those at the bottom, the weaver of this tale indicates that she has searched through the entire hierarchy of identities and our fellow is not to be found.

The third day the messenger came back again, and said: “I have not been able to find one single new name; but as I passed through the woods I came to a high hill, and near it was a little house, and before the house burned a fire, and round the fire danced a comical little man, and he hopped on one leg and cried: “Today do I bake, tomorrow I brew, The day after that the queen’s child comes in; And oh! I am glad that nobody knew That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!”

You cannot think how pleased the queen was to hear that name, and soon afterwards, when the little man walked in and said: “Now, Mrs. Queen, what is my name?” she said at first “Are you called Jack?” – “No,” answered he. “Are you called Harry?” she asked again. “No,” answered he. And then she said”: “Then perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin?”

Ah! I love this woman’s acerbity. He demands she deliver his name, and this time she knows the answer. So she draws out her pleasure; “Are you called Jack”? She asks, meaning, “Are you a common man?”. No. “Are you called Harry”? Meaning, “Are you then the Master of this House”? She is driving her point forward with clarity. She knows he is no common man and she also knows that he did not make the changes he wrought because he had the power, the authority, to do so within this household, this realm, this frame. She is shaving away the good and proper identities which he ought to have and is leaving him trapped in a corner for her final pronouncement. “Then perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin”? Boom. Rumplestiltskin is the name of Germany’s boogeyman5. He was understood as a goblin-like poltergeist, a violent, aggressive, and mischievous spirit which would rattle pots and homes. The queen has finally found the identity of the trickster and reclaimed her rights to her son’s life.

“The devil told you that! the devil told you that!” cried the little man, and in his anger he stamped with his right foot so hard that it went into the ground above his knee; then he seized his left foot with both his hands in such a fury that he split in two, and there was an end of him.

So the little devil has split himself in two, destroyed by his own impotent rage. Why does he assume that the Devil has told the Queen his name? Because the Devil is the top of this fellow’s hierarchy. The Devil knows who he is and what he’s about because he is one of the lesser members of the Great Fiend. So, Rumplestiltskin assumes betrayal by his cut-throat brethren, a reasonable assumption.

. . .

Let us summarize what principles we have uncovered.

The little devil, what do we know of him? Well, he has the power to change the material existence of our world. But he cannot create life. Yet he craves for the life he cannot have himself. He begins by offering help, but in the end he takes the most valuable things for himself. There also seems to be the indication that he cannot simply take those things he wants. He isn’t running around kidnapping children, he’s trying to trick their parents into giving them away. It seems life must be given, it cannot be taken. There are likely more principles to be drawn from this as well, but this partial list will suffice for now (Feel free to leave further principles in the comments section below).  

What frees a person from the clutches of this devilry? We first must accurately identify it. Once you have a frame for an entity, suddenly you can see its effects and its expressions where before you may have just seen data points. Identification alone is not enough, however. You must also move away from the deceptive power. In this tale the Queen chooses her son over the power available in Rumpelstiltskin. We assume that she would protect her son and work to fight the fiend, but she just as easily could have attempted to bargain her son’s life for more gold or other favors. Rumplestiltskin would likely have complied if he was assured to get his hands on her son eventually, or possibly on future heirs. But the Queen is a good woman and she rejects the wealth and power available in further dealings with this devil.

So, we return to my original question: have you been brokering deals with principalities?

I have.

Let’s examine one that is seemingly benign and ubiquitous in our culture. I make this deal every day, often several times a day. I walk up to Coffee and I ask for some energy for the next hour, thank you very much. And Coffee replies, “Certainly. Your wish is my command”. Perfect. But, do I know the true name of the principality I am dealing with or understand the full extent of the bargain I’m making?  

Coffee fits the bill for this type of principality as it has alchemical power. When I ingest coffee it changes the nature of my mind, it focuses my attention, improves my memory, my mood and my general vigilance. It’s alchemical power is not insignificant. But where does this energy come from? From the drink itself? No; there is no energy in the drink itself (unless we add sugar, etc.). Rather, it allows you to siphon vitality from your future self by drawing deeper on current reserves of strength without feeling a negative effect. Later lethargy sets in and a too-early weariness. But this is easily solved by returning to the well of Coffee yet again. But is this the only price coffee demands? Perhaps that could be solved with some extra sleep on the weekend. Not a terrible bargain.

This is where the trick has come in. Because I haven’t made a deal with Coffee – I, and perhaps you, have made a deal with the unholy union of Sloth and Pride. These principalities begin by offering to solve some unsolvable problem for us. They tell us they will help.

“But”, you may say, “I use coffee so I can work hard. That isn’t sloth, it’s the opposite”.

Oh, really?

Coffee allows you to live your life with less self-discipline. It allows you to stay up later. It allows you to commit to more than you can naturally produce in a healthy rhythm of life. Sloth, the modern name for Acedia, is characterized by spiritual laziness. It is a disease of the will. Without coffee, we would be required either to limit our commitments and deny the pride or fear which drive us to over-commitment, or we would be required to exercise our will in the pursuit of those goals with the energy we naturally have and we will be forced to grow as a result.

“But”, you object, “I use it to give me extra energy at the gym. It’s my pre-work out. I can’t push that hard if I don’t have the caffeine”.

Ah. Is caffeine offering to turn your hay into gold? Does it allow you to push a little harder and stay a little longer? And you think that’s good for you? Alright. Just make sure you know what the bargain is that you’re making. Make sure that your bargain won’t end up costing you your first born. These principalities don’t give power without asking for anything in return.

“But how can my super-charged work out possibly cost me my firstborn”?

The small choices we make and the frameworks we engage life through create trajectories and ripples which have far-reaching and hard-to-anticipate consequences. Perhaps you lose your firstborn because he (or she) feels neglected. You borrowed from your future energy so you could get more results at the gym. But that meant you had less to give at home and became inattentive and disengaged. Maybe that leaves your spouse feeling neglected which leads to coping through alcohol, lashing out in anger at the family, or an affair. Perhaps you lose your child because they emulate you: accomplishment, drive or “image” are what matter most rather than connection and relationship. Like you, they are only left with the edges of their attention or energy to offer at the end of a day. There are many ways one can lose their firstborn. Death or kidnapping are not required.

But Sloth and Pride know that they can’t simply show up and take our children. We have to hand them over. We have to decide, for instance, that we would rather bargain for peace now, in the form of screens and software. But later, we find that when we let them rove freely at the mercy of TicToc, Instagram, and Twitter (rather than exercising the painful effort required to find joy in boredom and creativity in solitude) that the price of our firstborn has truly been extracted. As with the changelings of Celtic yore, we find the child we turned our gaze from is no longer who he was when last we looked. But not without our permission. These deals require participation; we strike the deal, we just don’t always see with whom we are dealing.

Despite the dangers inherent in dealing with such dark principalities, we all must engage to one degree or another. The tale of Rumplestiltskin indicates as much. The point is not that we should stop drinking coffee or become luddites. Rather, how can we master the arenas in which these principalities look to ensnare us without being overcome by them? We must move cautiously with our eyes open to all the possible exchanges we are making without realizing them. Dealings of this sort are of the left-handed nature of Ehud, Esther, and the Benjamites. Awareness, cunning and finesse must be employed with great skill and come with no small measure of risk. (To more fully explore the differences between the right and left hand, consider reading Johnathan Pageau’s three-part series on the topic.)

Which principalities have you made bargains with? I have found, much to my chagrin, that I have made many bargains with several principalities. Honestly, I should have gotten the warning when Starbucks chose the mermaid as their logo: mermaids are symbols of deception and seduction. Ugh. Which other principalities? Well, fast food, videogames and Twitter are certainly other aspects of Sloth which I have bargained with. Vanity has taken her price as my attention, time and resources fuel my drive to be seen a certain way. No doubt most of my bargains are, as of yet, beyond my awareness. Technology has taken my time, cars have taken my community, and twitter has taken my temperance. I need to start by uncovering the true identities of these principalities so I can start the steady work of wisdom.

Lord, have mercy.

A final note: this article focuses on our participation with dark principalities, due to the nature of the tale Rumpelstiltskin. But we also participate with principalities of light. My next article will explore this as Christmas gives us an excellent opportunity to examine and participate with the Spirit of Light.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. da Silva, Sara G., and Jamshid J. Tehrani. 2016. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” The Royal Society 3 (1): 150645. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.150645#RSOS150645F4.
  2. The Grimm Brothers. 2020. “Rumpelstiltskin.” www.grimmstories.com. https://www.grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/rumpelstiltskin.
  3. New International Version. Esther. www.biblegateway.com. Esther 1 NIV – Queen Vashti Deposed – This is what – Bible Gateway.
  4. Longenecker, Dwight. “Caspar, Balthasar and Melichor? Where did that come from?”, www.dwightlongenecker.com, January 2018. Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior? Where Did That Come From? – Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  5. Tearle, Oliver. “A Summary and Analysis of the Rumpelstiltskin Fairy Tale”, www.interestingliterature.com, January 2017. A Summary and Analysis of the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ Fairy Tale – Interesting Literature
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