Thursday, 2 June 2016

Legends of Petter Dass

Petter Dass (1647?-1707) was a hugely influential north-Norwegian cleric, author, poet, and fish trader. His significance in Norwegian society is witnessed, among other things, by the volume of folklore connected to his person. Many of the legends that treat him have to do with his alleged affiliation with the theological seminary at Wittenberg, and his skill with the Scandinavian grimoire, the “black book”. (Dass was, in fact, educated and ordained in Copenhagen.)

According to the Norwegian Wikipedia article on Petter Dass, the devil—rector in Wittenberg—required one soul from each class as his share. This first legend shows how Petter Dass escaped when the lot fell on him.

The Black Book

It was at school in Wittenberg the parsons learned to use their black books, and command the evil one to work for them. When Petter Dass was at school in Wittenberg, there was an agreement that Old Erik* should have the one who stood at the bottom. But it was Petter Dass who stood at the bottom. So the old one came and should take him. But Petter Dass simply pointed at his shadow, he did, and said, “Take him there, you; for it is he who stands at the bottom.” So Old Erik took his shadow and left, and from that day, Petter Dass had no shadow.

Collected in Verdal, Nord-Trøndelag, by Anton Røstad

* Just one of the many euphemisms Norwegian has for the evil one.

The lot apparently fell on other Norwegian students of theology, too:

Wittenberg School

Rosenvinge, the sexton in Vefsn before Petter Dass, he had been to school in Wittenberg, and learned the black arts. He was so strong that he got a knife and fork to dance, but even so, not a sound was heard from the platter. And when he sat at table, he could disappear outside, while his shadow remained seated inside. He was without a shadow in the sun, for his shadow remained in Wittenberg, and the person came here.

Collected in Vefsn, Nordland, by V. Riksheim

I’m not sure what use a dancing knife and fork might have been, but the power the black book gave the parsons did have its uses, and it was considerable:

The Parson Conjures “a Ghost” into the Ground

Petter Dass went to church every Christmas Eve. Once, a man would enter and scare him. Petter said that, were he human, he should confess; but the man fell silent. Then he conjured him through the floor, piece by piece; and every time, he came up again. Finally, he conjured him all the way down.

Collected in Bruvik, Hordaland, by Andreas Leiro

Legends about other black-book-wielding clerics make a connection to the infamous Petter Dass:

The Incompetent Conjures the Devil

Just like Petter Dass, the parson Rørdam was supposed to have spent time at the Black School in Wittenberg.* He also owned a black book, and could conjure the devil. One weekend, when he preached at Odda, the servant boy – who was at home at the parsonage – searched out the strange book, they say. He was unfortunate, and came across the words that conjure the evil one. Straightway, Old Erik stood before him, whistling mad, and asked what he wanted. The parson’s boy was quick-witted. He dragged the evil one straight to a barrel of rye, and said: “Now you can count all these grains, so you’ll have work to do for a while.” The old one began.

Meanwhile, the boy began to leaf through the book, looking for the words to bind him. But he did not find them, and all at once, the dark one stood before him, with nothing to do. “You, go down to the shore before the parsonage and twist a rope from the sand down there,” said the boy. The evil one went down to the water’s edge, to complete his task. But it was not an easy task. The old one wept, they say.

Meanwhile, Rørdam stood in the pulpit at Odda church, and preached for the congregation. Then he suddenly felt there was something untoward going on at home. When the service had ended, he asked the parson’s boatman to row him home as quickly as he could. When the boat reached the parson’s quay, the evil one had just finished a length of rope. But the parson bound him, and the danger was over. The rope, they laid above the church door, and there it remained for many years. Then came folk to think that it was not a Christian thing, to have such devil’s work in the house of God. So they took it and threw it off the parson’s quay, and there it lies to this day.

Collected in Hardanger, Hordaland, by Halldor Opedal

* The Norwegian term, nedgangsskole is, perhaps, more accurately translated as “decrease school”, “downturn school”, or even “destruction school”; however, since there appears to be an established English term—the unimaginative “black school”—I have reluctantly conformed.

This type of legend is classified as “Inexperienced Use of the Black Book”; the Norwegian title here, however, is specifically “incompetent”.

Petter Dass, however, remains the pre-eminant master of the black book, and of the devil himself.

When the Evil One Himself Carried Petter Dass from Alstadhaug in Nordland to Copenhagen in Denmark

Old folk here have told about the occasion when the old one carried Petter Dass from Alstadhaug in Nordland to Copenhagen. It went like this: Petter Dass was summoned by the king, to preach and hold high mass on Christmas Day in Copenhagen. What the reason for this might have been, I have not had explained to me; but it was such that he did not receive word of it until late on Christmas Eve, and he should be in Copenhagen to preach the following day. The text he was to preach, or rather the sermon, would be written up for him, since at such short notice, he had too little time to study for his sermon.

When Petter Dass received the message, he understood immediately that it was a trick, perhaps on account of his good reputation as a preacher of the word of God. Petter Dass clothed himself in his parson’s gown and entered his chamber, sat himself on a small chest that he kept his bits and pieces in, and then he conjured the evil one. He came at once and asked what he wanted with him.

Petter Dass asked him to carry him to Copenhagen at once, for he had received a summons to preach there the following morning, and he had to be there at ten o’clock in the morning. Then there was the question of payment he would receive for the carrying. He should have the souls of those who slept in the church whilst Petter Dass was in the pulpit; this fee the evil one was satisfied with, and so off they set. He took Petter Dass on his back, and then he flew southwards in the direction of Copenhagen.

But then the evil one had thought to take the opportunity to throw Petter Dass in the sea; and to accomplish this, he thought he would scare Petter Dass to pray to Our Lord; he flew, therefore, so low over the sea in a particular place, that the feet of Petter Dass reached down into the waves; but then Petter Dass shouted: “Fly high up, and far forward, Satan!”

When Petter Dass came to Copenhagen, the king, or one of the other high church or -clerical officials said, “I think you must serve Satan, Petter Dass.”

Petter Dass answered, “I do not serve Satan; Satan serves me.”

When Petter Dass came up to the pulpit, there was a paper set forth. Petter Dass took the paper, looked at it, and said, “Here is nothing.” Then he turned the paper over, and looked at the other side. Then he said, “here is nothing, either; from nothing God created the world,” and then Petter Dass preached on the creation by the word, and on the word that became flesh and lived among us, etc. While Petter Dass preached, the evil one took a place beneath the stairs that rose to the pulpit, to count those who slept in church while Petter Dass preached.

When Petter Dass was finished with his sermon, and descended the stairs from the pupit, then he asked the evil one how many souls he had taken.

“How could there be any for me, the way you harangued them from the pulpit?” For the old one, if he takes one, will take the whole congregation.

Collected in Leksvik, Nord-Trøndelag, by Edvard Kruken

When Petter Dass died, northern fishing vessels carried a black cloth in their sails for the following hundred years, so highly the fishermen held him in regard.

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