Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in September 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Why the goat's knees are bare.

The Story of God, the Fire and the Devil.

IN THE beginning the goats had wings, and used to fly about eating up the tops of the trees. They did it so thoroughly that they left no leaf or bud, and never allowed a tree to grow up. When God saw what mischief they were doing, and how they were destroying all the trees, he cursed them, and, taking away their wings, he said that henceforth they should only be able to climb up crooked trees. And so they do.

               When they came down upon earth, finding themselves without wings, they went and made a pact with the devil, that they should henceforth help one another. The devil willingly entered into an agreement with them. It so happened that the devil's fire went out, and he was not able to rekindle it himself, so he sent the two goats to God to steal the fire from him. God had lit his fire, he had put the tripod over the fire, and had hung on it the bowl to cook his food in. Then he sat down quietly, watching the wood crackle and burn up. When the goats came they started a conversation with God, speaking of this and speaking of that, so that God should not see that they had come for the purpose of stealing fire. When they saw they could not get on, they decided to make a rush upon the fire, and to snatch a brand from it.

               So they ran towards the tripod trying to snatch the fire. God, who knew what they were bent upon, took the ladle which was sticking in the food, and with the hot stuff on it he smote the goats on their knees. The goats started running, and they shrieked from the pain of the burning food on their knees, which burned the skin so that all the hair fell out, and from that time the goats have no hair on their knees, and the devil's beasts they have remained to this very day.


In other South-Slavonian versions (Dähnhardt, i. 142 f.) it is the Evil One who invents the fire, and God is anxious to obtain it from him in order to give it to mankind. The Evil One had deprived them of it. God sends St. Peter to the Evil One with an iron rod in his hands. This he was to poke in the fire until it got white hot; then he was to touch some wood and the fire would leap up. Pursued by the Evil One, who perceived the ruse, St. Peter struck the flint before the rod had got cold, and thus got the spark inside the flint. Thus it is that sparks fly when the flint is struck by iron.

               As for the goats, the following variants and parallels are of interest:

               According to an Armenian legend of Transylvania (Dähnhardt, 154; Wlislocki, 12), the goat is the very work of the Evil One. Jealous of God, who has made all the creatures, he boasted that he also would make a creature of his own. When he saw how God fashioned the lamb, one of the last of God's creatures, he set to work to make an animal in the likeness of the lamb. So he made a goat. But he wanted to make it more beautiful, so he added a beard and planted some pointed horns on its head. Then he asked God to give life to his creation. God did so, and thus made for man two new animals, the good, useful and meek lamb, and the mischievous goat. God then took a vase, in which he had put the intelligence of the animals, and, finding in it only a few drops of the liquid at the bottom of the vase, he said to the devil that he must be careful in the use of these drops. So he dropped a few on the head of the lamb, but when he was going to pour some on that of the goat the devil shook the vase, and thus many more drops fell on the head of the goat than on that of the lamb. The devil laughed and said, "My creature is cleverer than thine." To which God replied, "That may be, but thy creature shall play the fool and live on scanty food."

               In a Polish version (Dähnhardt, i. 162), the goat is made by the devil almost in the same manner as he made the wolf in the tales Nos. 8, 9. And the goat comes to life only when, after saying "get up," he whispers, "by the power of God." When the goat rises, the devil in his fury gets hold of its tail and pulls it off; and ever since the goats have had no tails.

               In the South-Slavonic tale, curiously enough, the sheep take the place of the goat and are made by the devil, which, in the light of the above version, is due to some confusion made by the story-teller between the ram and the goat. (Krauss, Sud-slav. Sagen, Leipzig 1883, No. 29, p. 109.)

               In a modern Greek legend, the devil made the goat, but he made the knees stiff, and the goats perished from hunger. One day Christ was walking upon earth, and he met the devil, who showed him the goats, and said to him: "I have also made something, but I cannot make it sit down; its knees are so stiff; so the goats die off." Whereupon Christ took his seal and placed it upon the goats' knees. Afterwards they could easily bend them. Hence the sign of the seal upon the goats' knees. (Politis, No. 842; Dähnhardt, pp. 153-4.)

               In these two tales we have peculiar variants to some of the incidents in the Rumanian version, only so far as the connection of the goat with the Evil One and the bareness of the goats' knees are concerned, though the explanation is totally different from--nay, opposite to--that given in the Rumanian version, where the bareness is the sign of God's punishment of the goats.

               A German tale (Grimm, 148) tells us: God made all the animals, even the wolves, which were his dogs. The devil made the goats, which destroyed the vines, the young trees, etc. The wolves then went and killed the goats, and God offered to pay the devil the price of his destroyed creatures, but only when all the oaks should lose their leaves. But the devil was told that one oak in Constantinople keeps its leaves all the year. He went in search of it for six months, and could not find it. When he returned, the other oaks had got their leaves again, and he got nothing. He poked out the eyes of the goats, and put his own in instead, and therefore they have the devil's eyes, and so the devil sometimes assumes their form.

               These stories of the goat and the devil are probably one chapter of the larger and yet unwritten book on the goat-devil in popular beliefs and customs. It must suffice merely to mention the "scape-goat," the goat-demons (seirim of the Bible), the Greek fauns and satyrs. Satan, worshipped under the guise of a goat in the alleged orgies of the witches, is found in the record of the Inquisition in medieval accusations against the heretics. Is not the devil himself depicted in medieval imagery with the cloven hoof--of the goat and with the horns of the goat? The why and wherefore is another story. It is not here and now the place to enter upon it. The mischievous character of the goat, the amorous inclinations, the offensive smell, may to a certain extent have contributed later on to justify this equation of goat and devil, but there must be some other reason for making the goat, if not a type, at least the friend of Satan.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Why the goat's knees are bare.
Tale Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Book Title: Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories
Book Author/Editor: Gaster, Moses
Publisher: Sidgwick & Jackson
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1915
Country of Origin: Romania
Classification: unclassified

Back to Top