From Compendium Maleficarum, 1608. / © Public Domain
In his series on myths and legends, Gerry Erang explores some of the Grand Duchy’s lesser-known yet enthralling stories. This week, we travel back in time to the foundation of Luxembourg City- when Siegfried struck a deal with the devil.
Disastrous deals with the devil are almost as old as the devil himself. Over time, they have become a recurring motif that has penetrated every cultural space. In the Synoptic Gospels, the devil for example offers Jesus numerous bargains and promises material riches in exchange for faithful service. Goethe's Faust is perhaps the most famous example of an intellectual overreacher who famously gives his soul in exchange for guidance on his quest for the true essence of life. And do you remember the "unholy pact" that Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray is led into by the devilish hedonist Lord Henry?
Similar examples abound. Suffice to say the specifics of the stories may vary but the quintessence remains the same: a generally hubristic person offers their soul in exchange for diabolical favours. It's the life motto of almost every student and contemporary climate politics: carpe diem now, be damned later.
These deals with the devil are part of our cultural heritage and remain engrained in our collective memory and psyche. It should therefore come as no surprise that pacts with Satan have allegedly also taken place in our not-so-innocent Grand Duchy. In fact, one version of the foundational myth of Luxembourg City is, as we will see, interwoven with a Faustian pact. Much like Faust, who uses Mephistopheles to build an entire empire in the second part of the tragedy, Siegfried also relies on the devil's powers and quick access to cold hard cash to build good old Lucilinburhuc - which would gradually balloon into Luxembourg City.
Who's Siegfried again?
Chances are you've heard of Siggi before. He was the first person to rule our country in the mid-10th century after purchasing the Lucilinburhuc, a small fort on top of the Bock. He was also the founder of the House of Luxembourg.
And yes, he's the guy who had a massive crush on Melusina. Legend has it that she's an attractive young woman (minus the slimy fish tail) that Siegfried helplessly fell in love with when he was roaming the Alzette Valley. He consequently purchased the Bockfiels to be with her - and Luxembourg City gradually evolved around the massive rock. While the Melusina myth is a crucially important component of Luxembourg's cultural heritage in its own respect, it's not the myth I want to focus on in this article. You can, however, read more about it here:
The myth: Siegfried's deal with the devil
In his Sagenschatz des Luxemburger Landes, Nikolaus Gredt elaborates on a lesser-known but equally ancient version of the foundational myth. The beginning of the story is quite accurate from a historical viewpoint. Count Siegfried was living the dolce vita in his castle in Koerich. One day, he went hunting, got lost, and ended up in the Alzette Valley. Siegfried ultimately reached the Bockfiels. He looked up the impressive rock and saw the ruins of an old Roman fort. It immediately struck him: this place was perfect to build a proper castle. In 963, he acquired the rock, the fortress and the surrounding land from the Abbey of Saint-Maximin in Trier. The abbey, in exchange, received land Siegfried owned in Feulen near Ettelbruck.
It didn't take long before Siegfried was confronted with a major problem: he did not have enough money to build the castle he had been dreaming about. Frustrated and angry with himself for giving away his lands in Feulen for a rock, he called out the devil's name. Guess who arrived instantly? The mighty Satan himself. With sweet tongue, the devil offered Siegfried to give him enough funds to remove the Roman fort and build an impressive castle instead. He additionally promised to build a completely straight road from Siegfried's castle in Koerich to his new residence on the Bock. All of this, the devil explained, would be done within a single night. The catch? After thirty years on the day, Siegfried would have to give his soul to the devil. They shook hands and the deal was done. The next morning, Siegfried travelled to the Bockfiels. The devil had kept his word: there was a ramrod straight road to bring him to one of the most magnificent castles he had ever beheld.
Some claim that the castle was called Lucilinburhuc because it alludes to LUCIfer and Siegfried's deal. As much as I would like this interpretation to be true, the explanation behind the name is purely linguistic in nature. "Luzil" means "little" in Old High German while "burg" means "castle." Lucilinburhuc thus means "little castle."
On a side note, Luxembourg City is not the only place that was apparently brought to life by a pact with the devil. Legend has it that the inhabitants of Aachen struck a pact with the devil to get the remaining funds to finish the construction of the city's cathedral. In return, the devil would obtain the soul of the first person to enter the finished edifice. The famous devil's bridge (guess where the name comes from) in Switzerland is another example.
But let's get back to our story. Some time passed and Siegfried thoroughly enjoyed his new castle. It would have been perfect if it had not been for anxiety slowly creeping back at him. He only then fully realised that he had actually sold his soul to the devil. And what do you do in the tenth century when you want to rid yourself of a bad conscience? You give money to the Church! Siegfried feverishly began building churches and chapels and organised daily masses and readings of the Holy Scripture. His goal was, as Gredt puts it, to "wrest himself from the devil's force."
Sadly, time is an unstoppable beast and the dreaded day arrived after thirty years. Siegfried invited every knight from the neighbourhood to his castle and organised a large banquet. He also ordered countless armed soldiers to stand guard and not let anyone into the castle that night. Things didn't quite go according to plan. The devil suddenly appeared in the midst of the frightened banquet guests. Siegfried resignedly said goodbye and slowly followed the devil into another room. The devil grabbed him and the two vanished - only leaving a horrible smell behind.
A priest later claimed that he had seen the devil take Siegfried's body. His soul, he claimed, was spared and carried to heaven by angels.
Myths and ideological power structures
Like every week, let's venture into the realm of interpretation. Even though the myth is relatively straightforward plot-wise, I would argue that it boasts two key implications that are worth expanding on. One of them positive, one negative. Let's start with the optimistic interpretation. The parallel with Faust is once again striking. In fact, Goethe's Mephistopheles is not antithetically opposed to God. Evil and temptation, if we take it in a Christian way, are part of God's plan. Without evil, good cannot exist because the parameters to define good would not exist. Mephistopheles is ultimately a servant of God rather than his nemesis and unlocks Faust's full potential. Like in the Siegfried myth, Faust's essence is also brought to heaven by angels. The dynamics between Siegfried, God and the devil, in some ways, operate in a very similar way. Without the devil, Siegfried would have comfortably stayed in his castle in Koerich. He would never have built churches and chapels and given religious education to his citizens. Once again, remember that we are defining good through a Christian rather than a moral lens here. The devil, if we believe the priest, ultimately does not take Siegfried's soul, which adds to the idea that he is, like Mephistopheles, part of the whole, under God.
What about the negative interpretation? Two words: materialism and opportunism. I would argue that it is crucial that the myth ends with the priest claiming that Siegfried's soul has been saved - of course after he has built churches and chapels and donated generous sums to the Church. The implication is clear: if you give money to the (Catholic) Church, you will be saved and forgiven, even if you have struck a deal with the devil himself. The narrator of the story also transmits this idea by implicitly questioning the priest's narrative. It is the only passage in the text that is not reported as fact. The priest only "claims" to have seen angels bring Siegfried's soul to heaven. The story of Siegfried and the devil, probably centuries old, again exemplifies the very tangible ideological power of myths: they can be used and abused to reinforce existing ideologies and power structures. The priest could easily have lied and used his alleged knowledge as propaganda. To put it quite blatantly, if you tell uneducated Catholic citizens in the 11th century that they need to give money to the Church because they will, like Siegfried, be saved, chances are they will immediately believe you.
So go ahead and have a deal with the devil as long as you offer materialism in return. Perhaps not all that much has changed in Luxembourg in more than 1000 years.
Keen for more?
In the first instalment, we had the macabre pleasure of diving into nightmares manufactured in Luxembourg: the Kropemann is an eerie underwater bogeyman rumoured to live in the Attert river and drag unsuspecting children to their doom.
The Grand Duchy's mythical plot then thickened as we fled into the corporal realms of adultery, bitter-sweet revenge and Luxembourgish voodoo. Meet Peter Onrou!
We also took a stroll to Dudelange's Mont St. Jean and found out how you can break the curse that beset the hill's most spectral inhabitant centuries ago.
We later roamed through Steinsel's forests and thought about why you might see a distressed maiden with bloody nails frantically digging a hole in a the ground before vanishing on a fiery horse.
We also became part of dancing mania in Echternach and found out how the myth of a sorcerer called Veit may lie at the origin of Echternach's hopping procession.
In the previous instalment, we hunted down gnomes and Romans in Walferdange's forests - and discovered the historical links between these unlikely companions.
Gerry Erang is an editor and translator for RTL Today with a background in English Literature.
Do you know of another myth that should not tumble into oblivion? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.