Blog Post 54 – The Devil’s Nine Questions

Today’s post is going to focus on one very specific set of riddles:  The Devil’s Nine Questions.  This is a series of riddles which has been set down in the form of a folk song, and which has come over from English traditional music by way of the Appalachians and mid-Atlantic colonies.  The theme of the piece involves the Devil asking a series of nine riddles, which the song’s protagonist (“the weaver’s bonny”) must solve or be taken off to Hell.  There are numerous variants on this motif, and on this specific song.  It is recorded as one of the famous Child Ballads (#1), and you can hear a version of it here.

The version I’m posting here is not necessarily the most “authentic” or “original” version (as this song may have grown out of Elizabethan folk music and is rather hard to pin down as far as origins go).  But it is a version that I think bears examination by the inquisitive witch.

THE DEVIL’S NINE QUESTIONS

If you don’t answer my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
I’ll take you off to hell alive,
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

What is whiter than milk?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is softer than silk?
Say you’re the weaver’s bonny.”

Snow is whiter than milk,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
Down is softer than silk,
And I’m the weaver’s bonny.”

What is louder than a horn?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is sharper than a thorn?
Sing I am the weaver’s bonny.

Thunder’s louder than a horn,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety ;
Death is sharper than a thorn,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

What is higher than a tree?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is deeper than the sea?
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

Heaven’s higher than a tree,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
And hell is deeper than the sea,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.

What is innocenter than a lamb?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
What is worse than womankind?
Say I’m the weaver’s bonny.

A babe is innocenter than a lamb,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety ;
The devil’s worse than womankind,
Sing I’m the weaver’s bonny.”

You have answered me questions nine,
Sing ninety-nine and ninety;
You are God’s, you’re not my own,
And you’re the weaver’s bonny.”

From Bronson, Singing Traditions of Child’s Popular Ballads
Collected Mrs. Rill Martin, Virginia, 1922

Looking at this from an occult perspective, I see several things which stand out.  For instance:

  • The repetition about being “the weaver’s bonny,” which in my opinion may relate to being one of those who can change (or at least manipulate) Fate, the great weaver.
  • The efforts of the Devil to claim the “bonny” for his own reminds me a bit of the practice of initiation, which I covered recently (though in this case the person responding remains unmoved by the Devil’s efforts)
  • There’s an interesting bit of business in the part about trees, seas, Heaven, and Hell.  It’s almost a “Land, Sea, and Sky” image, but it also seems to be referencing the celestial, earthly, and underworldly realms.  Those are the realms a witch must go between, so I like to think there’s something to that part.

Of course, there are lots of other images in here which come out of Christian folklore, such as innocent lambs, the wickedness of womankind, etc.  In some of the variants, these change a bit (though usually the reference to Eve’s “original sin” remains in some form).  Some of the other variations include naming Love as softer than silk, rather than Down, and making Death “colder than the clay” instead of “sharper than the thorn.”   What I love about all of this imagery is that it relates one thing to another, connecting the senses to specific images in a very evocative way.  Associating Death with Thorns makes me think of going into the Underworld via the Hedge; Milk and Snow make me think of Mother images, like Mother Holle, who shook her downy blankets to stir up snow on earth; and thinking of Thunder as a Horn, summoning me out into a wild storm…well, let’s just say it makes my pointy hat dance on my head.

With songs like this, it’s often hard to know just what changed and when, and what the original meaning of certain parts are.  What I like about it, though, is the folkloric elements of being able to outwit the Devil and get one’s way, bending Fate to one’s will.  I would think this kind of a tune might be an excellent song for singing when gathering together with other witches, as a sort of  call-and-response as each witch is welcomed among the company (solving a riddle could serve as a “password” in effect).  Or, it could just be a good fun song to sing one night while passing a bottle around and telling jokes, stories, and riddles.  But what do you think?  Do you see anything witchy I missed?  Or do you think that dwelling on a song like this is wasting valuable time that could be devoted to a new root work herb of the week?  Is it all just a big stretch for something purely designed for entertainment?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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5 Comments on “Blog Post 54 – The Devil’s Nine Questions”

  1. Jae Says:

    No, it’s not a waste of time! Not at all. I believe parts of our brains are best reached by song and melody and lyrics and singing old songs are a valuable learning tool that is so much fun! I alas, am horrible at riddles but I love singing and mystery and things under the surface and almost subliminal. What is better than that, singing and pondering? I watch music videos and can sometimes see “themes” and images and a strong form of story-telling that can/may impart knowledge or inspire learning.

    I have always thought of thorns as a sort of guard-system that usually demands blood as a price to get through…must be all my experience with wild blackberries and roses and blackthorne and hawthorne trees! Thorns protect and keep things people animal out, away, and say “back off.”

    Like the Uncle Remus Stories my grandmother’s cook told my mother and her siblings and later me and the grandchildren…remember for those born in the brambles or briar patch, it can be haven, a source of protection. Death is much like thorns. Bonny also mean strong, good and fine, blessed too, right? Maybe the bonny one is born just a wee bit blessed or touched by Weaver/Fate? And of course, the “Devil’ is drawn to the bonny, the cunning, the wise! *heehee*

    Songs work on the unconscious too. Solving things can be greatly helped by singing. And it helps memory. Plus. singing is a form of communication and passing along knowledge or hints.

    And you may always sing as you work with your roots! As for thunder and milk and snow…wait, this is turning into a thesis!

    Thank you for a wonderful entry!
    Jae


    • Jae, what a wonderful response! Thank you so much for such a thoughtful reply!

      I also think that music and singing do something at some deep level to our brains. It’s funny how the right piece of music can put us in a very precise mood. These old folk songs, apart from their lyrical lore, seem to tap into that feeling, at least for me.

      I’m glad you mentioned the Uncle Remus stories! I’m probably going to be getting into those at some point, as they’re a big part of American folklore. And what a great connection between the brier patch and the hedge of magical folklore! I love that!

      Lol, I’d love to hear what you have to say on thunder, milk, and snow! But I know what you mean about starting something small and suddenly finding you’ve got a whole book on your hands (this blog, believe it or not, is around 50,000 words already). But free free to share! I love learning more and hearing from people on their connections between folklore and magic!

      Thanks again for a great reply!

      -Cory


  2. […] mes considérations auto-centrées à propos donc du divin en sorcellerie je suis tombé sur cet intéressant sujet de New World Witchery ( ça c’est un blog qui a une raison d’être il me semble, toujours plus que le miens […]

  3. simon14 Says:

    “I have always thought of thorns as a sort of guard-system that usually demands blood as a price to get through…must be all my experience with wild blackberries and roses and blackthorne and hawthorne trees! Thorns protect and keep things people animal out, away, and say “back off.” ”

    Yes i join you on this picture. Sleeping beauty is an illustration of this thorn’s power. And like the “child’s ballad”, the fairytale ( and i don’t speak of the caricatural misinterpretation of the neo pagan movement and the abusive exploitations of the iconography in question ) is of the same “species”for me. This “universal natural language” that keeps the “fundamental” knowledge in an exoteric way that strongly imprint the subconscious. I’m not american of course and i can’t tell about the corpus you evoked on your comment, but folklorical french children songs ( and worldwild i suppose ) fallow the same “purpose”. Of course, i guess that it would be interesting to study the way these songs mutated and changed following the great american mix. For example i find the “lullaby” archetype mentionned, i think in the previous entry reliable to this : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbQnxls4ZB8 and to the acadian lullaby for ci couldn’t find another version than this : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2giBYgZ13Tg. Blabla excuse me for my poor english. This blog is good.
    A french reader.


    • Hi Simon!

      Thanks for your input on this particular article. I think that there is definitely a sort of universal natural language which makes its way into our storytelling traditions. I’d be interested in exploring lullabies at some point, too, to see what they have of magical lore in them, so good suggestion!

      Thanks for your comment!

      -Cory


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