Billy Duffy and the Devil
“‘Billy Duffy and the Devil’ is really so amusing that we would be inclined to give it first place…Altogether folk-lorists will welcome Mr. Emerson’s contribution to the ever-growing library” — Glasgow Herald
The story of “Billy Duffy and the Devil” comes from Peter Henry Emerson’s Welsh Fairy Tales and other stories, and he writes as his source:
” Told me by the old man who told me of the origin of the Welsh. Vague.”
Our tale is similar to other stories that follow the Smith and the Devil classification as well as other tricking the devil archetypes, including Stingy Jack. The main element of this tale involves a Faustian pact where a character bargains with a Devil. It is also an etiological folktale explaining the creation of natural phenomena- the Will-o’-the-wisp. Emerson’s tale can be read on the Internet Archive as well as another version titled “The Three Wishes” in William Carleton’s ‘Tales and sketches, illustrating the character, usages, traditions, sports and pastimes of the Irish peasantry.‘ To see another tricky Irish story, check out last year’s “Luck o’ The Leprechaun.”
There was once an Irish blacksmith named Billy Duffy, but if you were ever looking for Billy Duffy, you were more likely to find him at the pub instead of his forge. He was a well-known drunkard and would only work to earn enough coins to fund his favourite hobby. Anytime he had some cash, he would drink until he was flat broke before begrudgingly returning to work.
The Faustian Pact
One day, as Billy Duffy was walking home after a night at the pub, he suddenly cried, “By God, I would sell myself to the Devil if I could get something to drink.”
Seemingly from out of nowhere, a tall gentleman dressed in black approached Billy Duffy and asked if he heard Billy correctly. Billy repeated that he would sell himself to the Devil if only he could get a drink! The man now revealed himself to be the Devil. He asked what Billy wanted in exchange for his soul. Billy could have anything- and in the story of the ‘Blacksmith and the Devil,’ the blacksmith becomes a master of all materials. All Billy wanted was seven hundred pounds, and after seven years, he would give up his soul to the Devil.
So, Emerson collected these stories in 1891/1892. Based on A. L. Bowley’s “Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century,” from the 1860s to the 1900s, wages for good Blacksmiths averaged about 50 pounds annually in Wales. This is a general number based on the census. So he went from probably 50 pounds to 100 pounds! Using English Pounds, 700 pounds in 1891 would equal about £70,390.09 today.
Once he returned home, he found the promised money piled in his smithy. Gleefully, he began squandering the money as fast as he could. Of course, word quickly went around that Billy was now loaded, and people flocked to him. One person who came was an old hermit who asked for food and water. Billy graciously invited him in and gave him all the food and drink he wanted.
The Hermit and the Wishes
Image: Thrice-Sinning Hermit on page 114v of the Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal 10 E. iv, c. 1300-1350
A few months later, the same hermit reappeared with the same request. Again, Billy welcomed the hermit, who ate and drank his fill before he left. Several months later, the hermit returned, and Billy Duffy gave him the same warm welcome. Once the hermit had eaten his fill, he thanked Billy for his kindness and said he would give him three wishes. Surprisingly, Billy did not immediately ask for booze and instead spent the night contemplating what to ask for.
He thought long and hard but eventually figured out what he wanted. First, he asked for a sledgehammer that would continuously force the wielder to strike until Billy commanded them to stop. The hermit was confused but obliged.
Next, Billy asked for a purse that no one could use unless Billy commanded it. The hermit was alarmed by the two useless wishes and asked Billy to think carefully about his last one. Billy waved him off and pointed to his big armchair instead. He wished that once you sat on it, you could not move until Billy allowed it. While the hermit complained that all three wishes were not good, Billy was pleased with himself.
And so, three days before the seven years were up, the Devil returned to the forge to see Billy working away. To nobody’s surprise, Billy had spent all his money. The Devil told him he could have as much money as he wanted for his last three days.
The End is Near
On the final night, Billy went into his favourite tavern and told the other patrons that he would give them each a pound so that they would have money to drink. He placed his tankard in the middle of the table and wished for twenty pounds. At that moment, a fireball crashed through the ceiling, and 20 sovereigns landed in his mug.
Everyone was stunned at the sight of the fireball, the explosive sound that accompanied it and the sudden appearance of the money. But they decided not to think too hard about it and drank the night away.
The next morning Billy was working away in his smithy, making a pair of horseshoes. The Devil entered and told him it was time that he took him. Billy agreed but asked the Devil to take his sledgehammer and help him finish this last job. When the Devil obliged and picked up the hammer, he realized he could not stop. Billy stopped working and laughed as he left the smithy for the next three days.
When he returned, the Devil was exhausted and quickly acknowledged he had been tricked. He offered Billy seven more years, twice the money and two days of grace before he was taken away. Billy accepted, released the Devil and spent his second fortune as quickly as his first.
Image: The Smith and the Devil from “Russian Folktales” translated by Leonard A Magnus, 1916. Wikicommons.
The End is Near- Again
Once again, he returned to his favourite tavern on his last night but, this time wished for five pounds. At that moment, a little man entered and spat the sovereigns into his tankard. Not as dramatic as the fireball, but at least there is no damage to the building this time.
So everyone drank the night away.
The following morning, Billy returned to his smithy. The Devil, who had rightly become suspicious of Billy, disguised himself as a sovereign and appeared on the floor. But somehow, Billy knew it was him. So he picked up the coin and put it in his magic purse. Placing the bag on the anvil, he began to hammer it. The Devil cried out in pain and begged him to stop.
Long story short, Billy got seven more years, three times the original sum of money, and one day where he can wish for what he likes. Once again, he wasted the money long before the seven years ended.
Third Times the Charm…Right?
He went to the same tavern for his final night and wished for a tankard full of sovereigns. This time, a straight fiendish creature appeared to give him the money. People finally started asking Billy about these odd occurrences, but he dismissed them.
The following morning he went to his smithy, but the Devil would not go anywhere near him. So after a while, Billy returned home and quarrelled with his wife.
Side note: While Emerson’s version and many Blacksmith and Devil stories skip the wife entirely, Carleton mentions that she gave as good as she got with Duffy. They drank and fought as hard as the other. His exact words were that if Billy Duffy had a black right eye, his wife had a black left eye.
While they quarrelled, the Devil entered and told Billy it was time. Billy D said he wanted to finish putting a few papers together and would not be more than two minutes. So the Devil sat in an armchair while he waited. Billy ran to his smithy and grabbed a heated pair of red hot tongs.
With this, he grabbed the Devil’s nose and began to pull. The Devil yelled in pain, unable to leave the chair as Billy pulled the soft nose, stretching it across the room.
The Devil’s shrieks echoed throughout the village. For days it continued as Billy went about his business, never letting him leave the armchair. Finally, the Devil calmed down and asked what Billy Duffy wanted. Billy replied that he wished to live the rest of his life and to have as much gold as he liked. The Devil agreed, and so Billy released him.
The Afterlife of Billy Duffy
Billy became rich and lived to old age. Eventually, Billy Duffy passed away, and his soul went to the gates of hell. The clerk asks for his name, and he responds that he is Billy Duffy. The Devil, who is nearby, hears this and orders the gate to be double locked, for Billy Duffy would ruin them if he got in.
For some reason, there was a pair of hot tongs nearby. So Billy grabbed the tongs and pulled the Devil’s nose once more-including a small piece of the Devil’s nose.
Then he ran to the gates of heaven. St Peter asked who he was, and he told him he was Billy Duffy, the blacksmith. St Peter was appalled and announced that there was no place for Billy Duffy in heaven. He was a bold man to even try.
Billy wandered back to Earth as he helplessly thought about his afterlife. He had been so caught up living in the moment that he forgot to account for the future. Soon after, Billy melted into the red-hot piece of the Devil’s nose. They say he still roams the Earth today as a will-o’-the-wisp.
Image: Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library MS Additional 42130); “St Dunstan, as the story goes, Once pulled the Devil by the nose With red-hot tongs, which made him roar, That he was heard three miles or more.”
1. Faustian Pacts
A Faustian pact is where someone trades their soul or something immensely valuable for a worldly benefit like money, knowledge, power or fame. The term comes from the Legend of Doctor Faust, which has many iterations. In the general storyline, Faust is unsatisfied with his life and calls upon the Devil to give him more knowledge and power. Mephistopheles appears and strikes a deal to serve Faust for a few years, but at the end of it, Faust’s soul would belong to the Devil. In Goethe’s drama, Faust is ultimately saved by God, but in the earlier legends, he has to uphold his deal and goes to Hell.
These Faustian Tales and Tricking the Devil tales are all over modern and classic media. One of the oldest known Bronze Age tale is the ‘Blacksmith and the Devil!’ In modern media we also have Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray,” Disney’s Heracles and Princess and the Frog, the Owl House, Gravity Falls, Star Wars and The Phantom of the Opera!
Image: King and the Collector from Disney’s “Owl House,” Dipper Pines and Bill Cipher from Disney’s “Gravity Falls,” and Heracles and Hades from Disney’s “Hercules.”
2. Three Wishes
We criticized Billy Duffy for what he used his three wishes. But let’s be honest, we are just jealous that he lucked out in getting the wishes in the first place. And he didn’t even need to brave a dangerous cave of wonders like Aladdin did. The hermit in today’s story gives Billy three wishes because he was kind to him three times, but the three wishes trope is a relatively common idea. Generally, the lucky wisher will use their first wish rashly on something small as they will not believe their luck. Or they may use it accidentally on something inconsequential. Either way, it often acts as a way to establish to the characters and the audience what they can expect from these wishes.
After seeing the first wish fulfilled, the wiser generally become more careful with their second wish. If the wish granter follows exact wording, this wish usually still has unexpected consequences, despite the wisher’s best intention. Finally, the last wish is often used to revert everything to how it was before the wisher used their first two wishes. These kinds of stories will end with the message, be careful of what you wish for.
Of course, Billy Duffy isn’t interested in outsmarting and maximizing his wishes since he knows he can manipulate the devil to get what he wants. So Billy doesn’t fall into the common pitfalls of this trope. Similarly, Jack Spriggins, from his own tale, has a similar situation of not really needing his wishes, so he squanders them.
Image: “Wish on a Star,” Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
3. Rejected from the afterlife
Billy Duffy tricked the Devil and won, but he got his just desserts in the end when he was barred from Heaven and Hell! Turns out he isn’t the only one to sell his soul and face the just desserts. Sometimes there is a fate worse than Death. This trope is explored in folklore like Alexander Afanasyev’s “The Soldier and Death,” a Russian Folktale where the Soldier is refused from Heaven and Hell and has to wander the Earth Forever.
Funeral rituals were also considered important in making sure the deceased would be able to enter the afterlife.
In Greek mythology and religion, you placed coins on the eyes of the dead so they would have the fare to pay Charon for passage to the afterlife. If they didn’t have the fare, they were trapped on the riverbed or in the river.
Image: Charon carries Souls across the River Styx, Alexander. D. Litovchenko, 1861
In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles destroys Hector’s body but eventually allows Priam to give him a funeral. The same can be seen in Sophocles’ Antigone, where Antigone is sentenced to death by King Creon after she buries her brother against his orders.
Another aspect of this trope includes ghosts! Ghosts in stories like Harry Potter and Caspar either have unfinished business, refuse to accept death or are too scared to accept death. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” the Dead Man of Dunharrow are cursed to be undead after they broke their oath to Isildir, the King of Gondor. They are only allowed to die after they come to Aragon’s aid and fulfil their vow.
4. cheating Death
At the end of the day, death is an essential part of life. And immortality is something characters always end up regretting down the line. Whether it’s from seeing every else grow old and pass on or their soul grows weary without their eternal rest.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus cheats death several times. Once, Zeus sends Thanatos, the god of death, to escort Sisyphus to the underworld. But Sisyphus manages to trick Thanatos and trap him with his chains. With the god of death trapped, nothing can die. This lasts for a long time until Ares, the god of war, frees Thanatos because he is tired of his enemies not dying.
Sisyphus does other things to trick the gods and lives a long life. However, when he does eventually enter the underworld, he is confronted by Hades and Persephone. And so Sisyphus was punished by having an afterlife as meaningful as his earthly life. He would forever roll a boulder up a hill but never be able to get it to the top before it rolled back down.
“The Punishment of Sisyphus” as seen recently in the Korean Netflix show, “Physical 100.”
At the end of this story, Billy turns into Will-o’-the-Wisp, a ghost light usually seen by lost travellers. It has many names like Jack-o-lantern, fairy lights, ghost lights, wandering lights or hinkypunks. When found in graveyards, they can be called “ghost candles.”
The story of Stingy Jack is often thought to be one of the origins of the Jack-o-Lanterns (although to be clear, they have many different possible origins). Stingy Jack is an Irish story of a drunk man who tricks the Devil twice, and as punishment, he is denied entry to Heaven or Hell. The Devil allows him to take some hellfire through the twilight world, and Jack places it in a carved turnip to use as a lantern.
In Mexican folklore, they can be witch lights since witches transformed into lights to travel or money lights indicating where treasures are hidden. In Japan, they were related to Kitsune as fox fires. In Korea, they are Goblin fires.
Despite all the folkloric reasons, people as early as 1569 have been trying to understand natural phenomena. Everything from fireflies to natural gasses to bioluminescence organisms has been proposed as possible Will-o’-the-Wisp sightings. Nowadays, we can most commonly see them in video games as trail markers leading to different quest sites!
Panelluses stipticus, Mt. Vernon, Wisconsin (long exposure) by Ylem WikiCommons.