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