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Literature / Godfather Death

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Art by Heinrich Lefler (1905)

"Godfather Death" is a fairy tale with many variants, all built on the premise of a mortal gaining Death as a godfather. The best known variant is Der Gevatter Tod, collected by The Brothers Grimm in Children's and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) -Tale #44-.

A poor man with twelve children has his 13th child. As the man has already asked everyone suitable he knows to be godparents to his other children, finding a godfather for his newborn son is a serious problem. Eventually he resolves to ask random strangers on the road to be the child's godfather.

After encountering God and the Devil and rejecting them as godfathers, the poor man meets a stranger who says he is Death and would like to be his son's godfather. This time, the man accepts.

When the boy comes of age, the godfather visits and declares he is going to make his godson a famous physician. He shows him a magic herb and tells him that whenever he will visit a patient, he will see Death standing either at the head or the feet of the sick person: If Death stands at the head, the patient can be cured, but if he stands at the bed's foot end, death is certain. Armed with this knowledge, the godson becomes both famous and wealthy for his medical arts.

One day, the physician is called to cure the king. Death stands at the king's feet, but because the sick man is the king, the physician turns the bed around, so that Death comes to stand at the head. The trick works, and the king gets better. Seeing as it worked one time, the physician gets the idea it might work another time. But how long can even Death's godson afford to cheat his godfather?

It can be read here, here, here and here. Different versions of the tale can be found here.

In the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, it is a Type 332, Godfather Death.

Loosely adapted as 1960 Mexican film Macario.


  • All Are Equal in Death: The poor man, who has earlier rejected God because God favors the rich and neglects the poor, happily accepts Death as a godfather, because Death "makes everyone equal" and "takes rich and poor alike, without distinction". The Grimms' later editions see it fit to comment that the man throwing shade on God is to blame on his ignorance of "how wisely God distributes wealth and poverty".
  • An Aesop: No matter who you are, no one can cheat death. Even Death's beloved godson isn't exempt from this rule when he pushes his luck.
  • Balancing Death's Books: When the physician asks Death to set up a new life candle for him before the old one can burn out, Death answers this is not possible, because for every fresh candle that begins to burn, an old one has to go out. This revelation also points to the possibility that the disease of the princess was the price for the physician saving the life of the king, her father, against Death's wishes, and even that the reason the physician has to die is because he has saved the princess' life.
  • Bargain with Heaven: Death gives his godson the ability to see at once whether a sick person will live or die, plus the ability to cure anyone who is not destined to die. This makes the godson a famous physician, but when he uses his gifts to cheat Death despite Death's earnest warnings to do so, Death takes his life in exchange for the ones he saved.
  • Deal with the Devil: Defied: The Devil offers to give the poor man's son money aplenty and "all the joys of the world as well" if the man will chose him as the boy's godfather. But the man refuses, because he expects the Devil to double-cross them. It is implied the Devil hopes to get the son's soul in the bargain by seducing him to a life of sin.
  • Death's Hourglass: Death shows his godson a cave full of candles which measure the lives of all mortals. The taller the candle, the longer the person lives, and when the candle has burnt down and goes out, they die. The godson then asks for his own candle, and to his terror Death shows him a tiny stump that is just about to go out.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: The poor man looking for a godfather is approached by both God and the Devil with the offer to help him out, but he refuses both of them, telling them to their face that God is not doing his job right, and that the Devil is a con man. This has no apparent consequences for him.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: The poor man gains Death as a godfather for his child. Death attends the baptism and later teaches his godson everything he needs to know to become a great physician. Only when the godson double-crosses Death repeatedly and against Death's earnest warnings to do so, Death becomes angry and takes his godson's life.
  • Dying Candle: To teach his godson why it is wrong to try to trick Death, Death leads him into a cave where countless candles of different heights are burning; each of them, Death reveals, is the life of a mortal: Whenever a candle burns out, someone on Earth dies. The godson asks about his own life candle, and to his horror Death shows him a very short one which is just about to go out.
  • God and Satan Are Both Jerks: Both God and the Devil offer themselves as godfathers to the poor man's son, but the poor man rejects God for giving to the rich and neglecting the poor, and the Devil for being a scammer. He accepts Death, because Death is the only one of the three who is just. The Grimm version apologetically comments on the man's refusal of God's offer that the man "did not know how wisely God divides out wealth and poverty"; apparently this was added in by the Grimms in order to neutralize the subversiveness of the poor man's stance on God.
  • The Grim Reaper: Death appears as a stranger on the road who offers himself as a godfather to the poor man's son, attends the godson's baptism, and later returns to teach his godson how to become a famous physician. Death's look remains ambiguous; he has "withered legs" and a "withered fist", which could be an euphemism for the familiar skeletal figure; on the other hand, the poor man does not recognize Death when he first sees him and is not terrified by the stranger. Death also has an "ice-cold hand" with a very firm grip.
  • Healing Herb: Death takes his godson out to the forest and shows him a herb that will cure all patients except those which Death intends to claim for himself. By use of this herb, the godson becomes a famous physician.
  • Invisible to Normals: Death gives his godson the ability to see him (Death) standing at the sick person's bed whenever he (the godson) is called, indicating to him whether the patient can be cured or is certain to die. No one else is able to see Death.
  • It Only Works Once: When the physician sees the king is destined to die because Death is standing at the foot of the bed, he turns the bed around so that Death is standing at the head of the bed, letting the physician save the king's life with the magic herb. Death is outraged at this betrayal, but spares his godson's life out of love. But he warns him that if he ever pulled that stunt a second time, he would pay the consequences. When the physician does the same trick to save the life of the king's daughter, Death makes good on his threat and takes the physician's life.
  • Loophole Abuse: In some versions, the godson tries to cheat Death by saying "give me time to read through the Lord's Prayer," then avoids any situation where he might possibly have to read all of it. Or saying "let me live until this candle burns out" but blows out the candle and puts the end in his pocket and doesn't burn it. Death, being Death, gets around these loopholes.
  • Panacea: The magic herb which Death shows his godson can cure all diseases so long as the sufferer is not destined to die. All the godson ever does as a physician is to apply the magic herb.
  • Standard Hero Reward: The king announces that anyone who can heal his only daughter from her sickness will get her in marriage and inherit the kingdom.