Thursday, November 2, 2017

Death and the Storyteller

In honor of Day of the Dead, I am sharing a folktale I came across during my "Following folktales around the world" reading challenge. 

Death and the Storyteller
A folktale from the Dominican Republic

Once upon a time there was a poor man who constantly dreamed of becoming rich. He had nothing and no one in the world, but he could tell the most amazing stories to people, and weave the most amazing dreams of what he would do, and see, and buy, once he was truly wealthy. Day after day, he waited for his chance.

One day, La Muerte, Death Herself appeared before the man. 

"I will take you under my wing" she told him "I will give you a profession. You'll become a doctor, and you will be able to cure any illness in the world by simply placing your hand on the patient. If you see me standing at the foot of the bed, you can be sure the patient will live. But if you see me at the head of the bed, beware: That soul belongs to me!"

The poor man was all too happy for the bargain. He immediately moved to the city, and began practicing as a doctor. People miraculously got better under his care. News spread like wildfire that there was a miracle worker in the city, and they soon reached the royal palace, where the king's only daughter lay very, very ill.

The King immediately summoned the doctor, and told him:

"My daughter is very ill. If you can cure her, I will make you rich, and give her to you as your wife. But take care, because if she dies, I will have you executed!"

The doctor went straight to the princess' room, trusting in his magical power... but when he entered, he was terrified to see La Muerte standing at the head of the bed.

What shall I do?! he thought frantically, If she dies, I'm done for!

With sudden inspiration, the doctor grabbed the princess' bed, and turned it around - now La Muerte was standing at the foot of the bed. The doctor quickly placed his hand on the princess. She was immediately cured, sat up with healthy roses in her cheeks, and La Muerte stormed out of the castle, furious.

The King announced that his daughter was going to marry the doctor who saved her life. The doctor was invited back for  the next day to prepare for the wedding. But as he stepped out of the palace, happy with his good fortune, someone grabbed his arm.

La Muerte had been waiting for him at the door.

"You are coming with me!" she said, and took the doctor straight up to the heavens, to the place where people's life-flames are burning. Each life was represented by an oil lamp, some burning high and bright, and some burning low. La Muerte pointed at a lamp that was sputtering out.

"That is your own life flame." she declared "You tried to cheat me, so now your time is up. You have five more minutes left to live."

"Five minutes?!" cried the doctor in shock, looking around. He noticed a full can of lamp oil nearby on the table. He turned back to La Muerte. "Very well, then. But before I die, I would like to tell one more story. It is a really good story, I think you'll like it."

"Go ahead, then" La Muerte nodded, and the doctor began to speak. He told such an amazing, such a wonderful, such an incredible tale, the best tale he ever told, that he had La Muerte completely enthralled... and while he was talking, he reached behind his back, tipped the oil can, and refilled his own lamp. He poured so much oil in it, that he is still alive today.

This, the story says, is how storytelling defeated Death Herself.


This story is my (slightly elaborated) re-telling of a short folktale I found in a collection from the Dominican Republic. The original storyteller's name is Feyito Molina, and he was from Monte Cristi. The story is a rare variant of the folktale type commonly known as Godfather Death (ATU 332). I have never seen a variant before where the doctor got away at the end! As a storyteller, I found it fascinating that Death, in this case, was defeated by storytelling. I feel like there is a message in it for us all. Stories do live on. 


  1. Andrew Peters's 'Strange and Spooky Stories' has a variant where it is a girl who makes a deal with death and rescues a prince. In the end, she uses enough oil to save both the prince and herself to become immortal, and they live happily ever after.

  2. I think I remember the bit about Death standing at the head of foot if the bed. I do like the idea of storytelling defeating death, but that happened in the story of Scheherazade, didn't it!?
    To Rewrite Or Not To Rewrite - That Is The Question