The Wager with the Devil

(A Nuremberg Legend, translated by Rudy Langmann)

Many are the legends connected with the old imperial castle in Nurnberg, the castle which even today looks down over the city from its high hilltop, controlling the neighborhood near and far. The old chroniclers tell us that it was built by Emperor Konrad 'the First' and that the ancient stronghold is still to this day haunted by another emperor: Frederic Barbarossa, the red-beard. Since we are only dealing with legendary tales we will not worry too much about the truth of the story, and we will accept as a matter of fact that the castle chapel as well as the so-called Heidenthurm arose by the command of Konrad on the site of the old Roman 'Neronesberg' castello. It is surrounded by strong walls of fortification and is truly a fitting residence for an emperor.

This particular imperial chapel (not Ottmars chapel, as it is often wrongly called) is the stage set for several demonic appearances, as being the case with nearly every church, chapel and castle in the land, yes even with bridges and deep underground wells as well as other buildings and edifices of old. As a rule it usually concludes with the 'God be with us' in all of these fables, and with the Prince of Hell left standing there with a long nose in the end. Many human individuals are well aware of the 'devilish perfume' of sulphur he leaves behind.

Supporting the archway of the castle chapel stand four great pillars, one of these with a ring around the middle. They can still be seen today, along with a bearded human head, the head of a monk. This is placed in the gallery fronting the imperial residence, and it is playing a main role in this particular legendary tale.

At the time when Konrad 'the First' had to deal with the Bavarian Duke Arnulf, who refused to accept the emperor as his master, building materials, especially fabricated from Italian marble, were scarce. And this was exactly what was needed for the four pillars. The king was expected back from his military campaign in Bavaria and the day of his arrival was drawing near. During the upcoming winter the emperor was expected to hold court at the Nurnberg castle, and the dedication of the chapel by the bishop from Regensburg could not wait.

This caused a lot of worry for the castle chaplain, Father Cyrillus. He called in the architect, explaining his dilemma, and asked him to do everything in his might to complete the building on time. 'That can not even be done by the Devil himself!' answered the builder calmly.

So one stormy autumn night Father Cyrillus lay twisting and turning on his bed. The jackdaws were screaming from high above the roofs of the castle, awakening the frightened owls nesting in the top hideaway corners of the old romanic tower. Towards midnight the storm from the northwest tore away at the castle with such a force that you would believe it was about to be pulled down. The room was bathed in light from the thunder storm and Pater Cyrillus rose from his bed, fully able, by the light shining in from the outside, to read from an ancient codex concerning purgatory and hell. From there his eyes went to a chapter on the mass for the souls of the living and the dead. The completion of the chapel could not wait any longer. He thought it was all Satan's doing, but he also contemplated the glorious triumphs of the Holy Church over the Devil and all his powers. With this all in mind he once again laid back in bed longing for sleep. And soon he dreamt.

But now a row of pictures of phantasy danced before his eyes. It appeared to him that his chamber became slowly filled with a thick-flowing substance of calm that made it hard for him to breathe, and the thickening cloud gradually began to take the shape of a phantom very much resembling the evil Prince of the Underworld.

'Away, Satan!' shouted Cyrillus when the being from Hell approached his bed, but quickly his fears disappeared as the ghostly outline gradually metamorphosed into a working man wearing a contemporary costume, -- a stone mason or a bricklayer.

Father Cyrillus was a cautious man. He was well aware of the change in the appearance of his uninvited nightly visitor, but he put the trust into his own pastoral calling, enough so as to rise from his bed and ask, while holding the crucifix high in his right hand, what his visitor wanted.

With his face turned to the side, his guest answered: 'I know what your wish is, and I have come to fulfill it. The chapel scheduled to be completed within the coming weeks is missing the marble columns. I promise you, in spite of what your doubting builder thinks, to bring them here, and then when King Konrad has chased Duke Arnulf off his lands and made all of Bavaria his and arrive here, you will be able to celebrate a high mass in the finished chapel.'

'And what do you ask for this service of yours?' asked Cyrillus. 'Naturally nothing other than my soul!', he added. 'Such a deal we can never, in all eternity, make, because my heavenly body belongs to someone mightier than you. Move away from me, Satan.'

'Whenever I am dealing with a man of the cloth,' said the Devil, 'I always know beforehand that he has all sorts of excuses and hesitations, but our dealings always are concluded in the end, and you are surely not the first one with whom I have struck a bargain. I know that you are a clever priest and that you are capable of reading a mass within a quarter of an hour while others need twice as much time to do the same. Therefore, let us make a deal with one another. I know of an old abandoned temple in Rome where there are four pillars of the most beautiful carrara marble, and those I will fetch for your chapel, one after the other, and if you have finished with your mass at the time when I arrive with the last pillar then I shall forget about payment -- but if you still haven't finished, then your soul belongs to me. That is surely a reasonable offer? But it must all happen before the cock crows. I don't have any longer time.'

Father Cyrillus quietly thought this over. 'On that I can surely bet,' he thought to himself. 'What does the Devil know about reading a high mass, and besides, how the angels in Heaven will laugh aloud when they hear that the Evil One himself has helped bring about the completion of a sacred place of worship like this, assisting with the beautification of the chapel.' So he did not hesitate for long, saying: 'It's a deal. I agree to your wager and will prepare for the execution of the holy transaction by bringing in a couple of witnesses. But you are not to start out before I begin with the Introduction.'

'I am satisfied,' answered Satan, 'but I will not be a witness to your hocus-pocus, and therefore I will take my seat on the pointed top of the tower, and when your little bell starts ringing, indicating the start of the game, I am off to Italy.'

Pater Cyrillus was in agreement with this, and followed by a couple of castle guards acting as ministrants he then saw the Devil happily seated on the top of the Heidenthurm. With broad claws and bat-like wings the Evil One was beating the air so consistently that you could hardly hear or feel the terrific storm any longer. From the south came a heavy blast of thunder followed by blitzes outlining the specter, black as a raven, sitting there on the needle-sharp tower peak. The priest prepared the decked altar, and as he set down the monstrance, an enormous thunderclap shook the castle foundations so much that you would have thought a collapse would have been eminent. The two guards panicked, falling to their knees while crossing themselves. But Pater Hilarius swept aside their angst and ordered that the bells start ringing, and when he stood before the altar and the first tones sounded, they were followed by a monstrous hissing sound, one blitz of lightning after another, the thunder rolled without a cease, and a gigantic black shadow crossed the chapel windows. It was the Evil One who had begun his journey, with his great wings breaking several of the windows. Great splinters of glass were falling all over the altar.

Quietly, without letting himself be disturbed by all this commotion, Pater Cyrillus began his holy service, but when he came to Consiteor, the Devil was already back with the first column, putting it in place utilizing all of his enormous power. The Offertorium had barely begun when the second pillar stood upright in its assigned position, as if placed there by a master stone mason. Now the priest became fearfully anxious, and as he spoke the Sanctissimus and the bells announced the Transformation, the storm was so terrific inside and outside the chapel that both he and the ministrants had trouble keeping on their feet. Cyrillus was so blinded by the blitzes that the words of the Missale danced in front of his eyes. It was not until he spoke the Communion that he became aware that the third column was in place, already beautifying the chapel. The two ministrating guards lay unconscious on the floor, but Cyrillus spread his arms over the altar, and with a loud voice intoned: 'Dominus vobiscum! Ite missa est!' (The Lord be with you. Go in peace).

At these his last words a gigantic blast of a firestorm broke through the door followed by an enormous explosion threatening the collapse of the entire chapel archway. Cyrillus fell across the altar, extinguishing the lighted candles; darkness fell across the place, followed by yet another blast of thunder.

In the castle everyone and everything had come to life. Guards and servants came running with lighted lamps and found the priest and the two altar servants lying unconscious on the floor. They were looking incredulously at the three marble pillars standing upright there in front of the chapel, and in the middle of the whole thing lay the fourth column, broken in two.

Not until the rooster announced the coming of a new day did they manage to bring the three unconscious individuals back to life, but the terrible events of the night had totally changed the spirit of Pater Cyrillus. His story about the wager with the Devil, attested to by the two eye witnesses, brought some light upon the matter so far as the broken pillar was concerned. It is only to be added that in those days, so far back in time, it was believed that the Devil in losing his wager and with that the soul of the priest, had thrown the last pillar to the ground at the very moment when Pater Cyrillus intoned his 'ite missa est', breaking the column in two in his horrendous demonic anger.

The chapel was consecrated by the Regensburg bishop before the homecoming of the emperor, and Father Cyrillus was berated by the bishop for having entered a bet with the Devil, the arch enemy of all of Christendom. The priest was ordered to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to confess all his sins and seek absolution from the Holy Father. In consideration of his good intentions in entering into the wager this was immediately granted by the Pope, and Pater Cyrillus regained his sound and godly spirit. He remained a favorite with King Konrad and his successor, Heinrich, as a castle chaplain in Nurnberg until his death at an advanced age.