Flute which Raised the Dead

A poor farmer; one pig, one wife, and very little money or food. At last driven by hunger to kill pig. Work all day cutting pig up, keeping blood for sausages, etc.

That night lying in bed, has an idea. Gets pig’s blood, smears lots of it over his wife, tells her just to do exactly as he says – and all their troubles will be over. He now begins to shout, scream, swear, stamp on the floor, knock over furniture, throw around whatever he can get his hands on. Soon neighbours are roused by noise. They come in to find the place a shambles, and the farmer’s wife lying “dead” in a pool of blood. But when they finally manage to calm the farmer down, bring him out of his murderous rage, show him what fatal deed he has done, the farmer merely looks at his wife and tells them all he can easily undo everything.

He picks up his old flute, plays a tune, and to their amazement she comes back to life! When they neighbours leave, one – a very mean, grasping, avaricious merchant – remains, gazing longingly at the flute. “I can see how useful a flute like that can be. My wife often drives me to fury, too – so wasteful with my money, she is. I’ve often been very close to striking her – yes, very useful sort of instrument, that.” Of course the farmer could never sell – at least not until the merchant offers more money that he has ever offered for anything before.

But at last gold and flute change hands, the merchant goes home looking forward to the next time his wife gives him reason to be angry, and the farmer and his wife sit in bed counting their money. Merchant does not have long to wait. Finds his wife actually encouraging the poor by giving them food and warm clothes. This time he knows there is no need to hold back. And soon there she is, lying dead on the floor. He leaves her there for a while – just to show her! At length he relents and picks up flute. But however long he plays, however frantically, it doesn’t work. At last, desperate, he throws flute onto floor, breaking it in pieces. Runs to farmer. “Help me, help me. Flute didn’t work!”

“Well, give me flute, perhaps I can make her alive again.”

“Oh, too late. It’s broken, she’s dead, and I’ll have to run for my life!” And so he did. Leaving the farmer and his wife without a flute, but with an awful lot of gold. And what they did with it – well, that’s something they never told me …

This is an old version of a tale I found in Musikmärchen (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994). It is a 16th century German trickster tale called “Die Wundergeige” (The Miraculous Violin), and the trickster is a baker. Here the original source is given as an 11th century Latin poem “Unibos” where it is indeed a poor farmer who plays the flute.

Italo Calvino’s notes to his version, “The Story of Campriano” (Italian Folktales, p. 298), attest to its popularity throughout Italy.

Allan Davies, then a member of the Storytell mailing list, gave me a longer version of this tale which is well-known in Britain. I now usually tell my own version based on that:  Jack and the Shitting Donkey.

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