The Devils Sooty Brother. or Don’t show your gold too soon. Why the boy hid his Golden hair in Iron John.

The Devils Sooty Brother. or Don’t show your gold too soon. Or  Why in Iron John the boy hid his Golden hair.

The Devil’s sooty brother

A fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm Collection.

For those who would like narrative all in one chunk see The Devils Sooty Brother Narrative.

This was the first story I ever told as a “Story Teller” in 1986 or thereabouts the Emissaries had a house in Beverly Johannesburg.  A group of us started a “Men’s” group following a document from Bill Kauth of MKP fame. In that document was this story and some guidelines on how to tell it plus the instruction that a member of the group needed to tell the story from memory. Nobody else was keen but I was and so I started and found I had a talent for storytelling and an understanding of stories.

Using one story to amplify part of another story. If the idea holds true that all these stories live within us and or are parts of us than one story cannot carry the whole gambit of human expression. As I grow into these stories, I see some aspects which are expressed by a single sentence in one story, are expressed in another story through the whole story. So, it is with the concept of not showing your gold too soon and covering your Golden hair in the Iron John Story.

To fully understand our Iron John story, we need to understand why it’s not good to show your Gold to soon.

This story simply states that the false innkeeper will steal it. The false innkeepers abound and see the Gold of youth and try to capitalise on it while our youth in its enthusiasm and naivety just wants to show anybody who will listen or watch, their Gold. The story says that doing shadow work can bring rich rewards.

This story can also give us some insight as to the condition of the Wildman at the bottom of the dirty pond and how he got there, and what binds him there.

I first thought to use this story to amplify why Ivan (yes I have given him a name) our Hero in Iron John hid his Golden hair and what lay behind that. However, I see now that this story amplifies not only the “Don’t show your Gold too soon or Golden Hair” but also the loss of the Golden Ball.

The Narrative begins: A disbanded soldier had nothing to live on, and did not know how to get on. So he went out into the forest and when he had walked for a short time, he met a little man who was, however, the Devil. The little man said to him, “What ails you, you seem so very sorrowful?” Then the soldier said, “I am hungry, but have no money.” The Devil said, “If you will hire yourself to me, and be my serving-man, you shall have enough for all your life? You shall serve me for seven years, and after that you shall again be free. But one thing I must tell you, and that is, you must not wash, comb, or trim yourself, or cut your hair or nails, or wipe the water from your eyes.” The soldier said, “All right, if there is no help for it,” and went off with the little man, who straightway led him down into hell.

Coming home from war. When we come home from war there needs to be ceremonies or rituals of absolution so that the ego can feel acceptance it needs from the Status Quo to feel secure. The Status Quo is the final arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong. When this doesn’t happen (as historically what happened after the Vietnam war and the Angolan war for south African forces) the returning warriors have no way to process their grief over what they witnessed and indeed their part in what happened. These unresolved experiences were brought back home into a civilian population who had no context within which to deal with them. These men who were unable to integrate their war experience with civilian life’s experience and were essentialy lost to the community.

The coming home from war having lost the battle for Soul.

The loss of the golden ball. We all operate out of our own psychology I feel and remember this process well and have been at war with authority figures my whole life. Causing me to fly below the radar of the status quo and have a distrust of men in groups. So I write from that position.

This is where this story starts.  A disbanded soldier had nothing to live on and did not know how to get on. So he went out into the forest and when he had walked for a short time, he met a little man who was, however, the Devil. The little man said to him, “What ails you, you seem so very sorrowful?” Then the soldier said, “I am hungry, but have no money.”

This devil and this Hell is perhaps not the Christian idea of Evil and hell but rather an aspect of soul that has an interest in integrating shadow aspects of the collective into the Ego structure. Shadow is anyway determined by the prevailing Status Quo.

To be hungry is to hunger for something. Often we hunger for freedom from anxiety and try to sate that hunger with food, sex, power, position, and money in this world. Like the old King in Iron John who hungered for something wild. That hunger, that anxiety, that memory of the golden ball, began the whole Iron John saga. 

Shadow and Initiation. There is a direct link between shadow, initiation, and the Corvid 19 crisis.  Shadow is always trying to crack open the crusty shell of the status quo to integrate greater and greater possibilities into the individual.

The devil’s terms and conditions; “If you will hire yourself to me, and be my serving-man, you shall have enough for all your life? You shall serve me for seven years, and after that you shall again be free. But one thing I must tell you, and that is, you must not wash, comb, or trim yourself, or cut your hair or nails, or wipe the water from your eyes.”

Why these terms? well perhaps they are the opposite of the Status Quo’s terms and conditions. Remember the description of the Wildman from the bottom of the dirty pond, long unkept hair smelly etc. the same description. Being unacceptable the wildness was imprisoned and kept locked safely away. A great description of our penal system. The other description is our shadow, some of it personal some of it collective in nature.

When the Status Quo does not support the returning warrior or they belong to the losing side, it is crisis time for those warriors. When there is a crisis, all the stories say the same thing. Go for a walk into the forest. The forest has answers and processes for healing. I’m sitting here in South Africa at day 40 of a lock-down for the Corina-19 virus. South Africa has gone from a wobbly democracy to a benign dictatorship. Collectively we all went into our fox holes to wait out the crisis. While hoping for a return to the Status Quo we all knew at the same time collectively that life will never be quite the same again. However, as the Virus crashed across the boundaries erected by the prevailing Status Quo it revealed in stark reality Soul truth, namely that we are all connected, and no amount of force or extreme isolation is going to change that. In fact, extreme isolation actually proves the soul’s point. So now the poor and the disenfranchised can kill us just by their presence the status quo can no longer just be ignored by them.

The forest is beckoning, but who has the courage to go there? The story has been there for us and left us signposts to follow if we have the courage for the Quest.

In the Christian world, the underground is associated with the Greek Hades.  Hades was one of three worlds ruled by the Zeus brothers franchise. In the shamanic world, the underworld is the progenitor of this one. While not everything in the underworld is manifest here it can be, which is why when we visit the below, world seemingly magical things can happen. 

The narrative says: The soldier said, “All right, if there is no help for it,” and went off with the little man, who straightway led him down into hell.

Then he told him what he had to do. He was to poke the fire under the kettles wherein the hell-broth was stewing, keep the house clean, drive all the sweepings behind the doors, and see that everything was in order, but if he once peeped into the kettles, it would go ill with him. The soldier said, “Good, I will take care.” And then the old Devil went out again on his wanderings, and the soldier entered upon his new duties, made the fire, and swept the dirt well behind the doors, just as he had been bidden. When the old Devil came back again, he looked to see if all had been done, appeared satisfied, and went forth a second time. The soldier now took a good look on every side; the kettles were standing all round hell with a mighty fire below them, and inside they were boiling and sputtering. 

Shadow’s work by any other name is shadow work.

Keeping the fires going under the Cauldrons.  An image of transformation through heat and fire. We saw this in the story of the Firebird where the hunter was transformed by jumping into the Cauldron. In this story the instruction is simple

  • Keep the fires going.
  • sweep all the wood chips behind the door
  • Don’t cut your hair/beard trim your nails, don’t wash.
  • DON’T look in the pots (Which almost grantees that we are going to look in the pots)

Shadow work. Shadow work is not easy, nor comfortable, but outstandingly rewarding.  Many groups specialise in shadow work. It seems to be easier to do the shadow work as a group however, this story shows us finally you have to do it alone. You must be willing and have the will power to keep stoking the fires. Many groups fail because slowly over time the fires are allowed to die, the work of stoking becomes too uncomfortable and the demands of the Status Quo become exhausting. “I don’t have time for this shit”. There is a payback of doing this work, it is the grand adventure the great opus of the ultimate hero’s journey, over and above this is the release of energy that was bound up with binding this content into shadow. When this energy is released there is a feeling of euphoria and invincibility. 

How did these three men get into the cooking pots?  If we go back to “Towards an understanding of Shadow”

We see how the Ego protects itself by splitting off memories of events that threaten to overwhelm the Ego, The young man was looking so “sorrowful” when he was in the forest, in a way unable to participate in life, a state of disassociation. Like being on our internal telephone constantly, we are so preoccupied with this event as a story we keep reliving it over and over. The young man put them into the pots and by restoring the fires, transformed the experience into acceptability for him at least, and earnt some gold for himself through that work. In our world the ability to retrieve split off parts and transform them into acceptability is worth the gold of a more whole and complete person.

Lifting the pot lids. In group work there is a trap in wanting to finish a process by the end of an evening, the idea that it is dangerous to send somebody home with the lid still off the pot is paramount. We need to send whole people home to their wives and children and the Status Quo.  Often then the transformation does not take place. The story says “if you lift the lid and recognise who is inside, you must stoke the fire”. If all of the characters of a story live within us then in the pots are three different levels of the authoritative voices within us. The corporal a personal voice telling us what to do, a lieutenant directing how and where to fight, and the general who is planning the whole thing. The story tells that even with stoking the fires, this a lengthy process; seven years the story says.

The narrative says: He would have given anything to look inside them, if the Devil had not so particularly forbidden him: at last, he could no longer restrain himself, slightly raised the lid of the first kettle, and peeped in, and there he saw his former corporal shut in. “Aha, old bird!” said he, “Do I meet you here? You once had me in your power, now I have you,” and he quickly let the lid fall, poked the fire, and added a fresh log. After that, he went to the second kettle, raised its lid also a little, and peeped in; his former ensign was in that. “Aha, old bird, so I find you here! You once had me in your power, now I have you.” He closed the lid again, and fetched yet another log to make it really hot. Then he wanted to see who might be sitting up in the third kettle it was actually be but a general. “Aha, old bird, do I meet you here? Once you had me in your power, now I have you.” And he fetched the bellows and made hell-fire blaze right under him. So he did his work seven years in hell, did not wash, comb, or trim himself, or cut his hair or nails, or wash the water out of his eyes, and the seven years seemed so short to him that he thought he had only been half a year. 

Now when the time had fully gone by, the Devil came and said, “Well Hans, what have you done?” – “I poked the fire under the kettles, and I have swept all the dirt well behind the doors.” – “But you have peeped into the kettles as well; it is lucky for you that you added fresh logs to them, or else your life would have been forfeited; now that your time is up, will you go home again?” – “Yes,” said the soldier, “I should very much like to see what my father is doing at home.” The Devil said, “In order that you may receive the wages you have earned, go and fill your knapsack full of the sweepings, and take it home with you. You must also go unwashed and uncombed, with long hair on your head and beard, and with uncut nails and dim eyes, and when you are asked whence you come, you must say, ‘From hell,’ and when you are asked who you are, you are to say, ‘The Devil’s sooty brother, and my King as well.’” The soldier held his peace, and did as the Devil bade him, but he was not at all satisfied with his wages. 

The shadow work wages.

So, with the shadow work almost done we leave the underworld without really understanding what just happened. Sort of a facepalm and WTF moment. We have a bag of wood chips as our wages seeming valueless. It seems to be important to come back to this world in the state we have existed in the underworld. The Shadow work demands that we acknowledge that we are the Devils sooty brother and he is our King as well. To deny shadow and shadow work is to die a living death. Kabir  describes it as “an apartment in the city of death.”

Then as soon as he was up in the forest again, he took his knapsack from his back, to empty it, but on opening it, the sweepings had become pure gold. “I should never have expected that,” said he, and was well pleased, and entered the town. The landlord was standing in front of the inn, and when he saw the soldier approaching, he was terrified, because Hans looked so horrible, worse than a scare-crow. He called to him and asked, “Whence comest thou?” – “From hell.” – “Who art thou?” – “The Devil’s sooty brother, and my King as well.” Then the host would not let him enter, but when Hans showed him the gold, he came and unlatched the door himself. Hans then ordered the best room and attendance, ate, and drank his fill, but neither washed nor combed as the Devil had bidden him and at last lay down to sleep. But the knapsack full of gold remained before the eyes of the landlord and left him no peace, and during the night he crept in and stole it away.

The false innkeeper makes his first appearance.  His love of gold overcomes his distress at our appearance and in a way at our naivety. Now we discover the false innkeeper has fooled us. Returning to the forest and then to the underworld we collect more shavings, having shown ourselves in the middle world in our underworld form, we learn the final lessons of shadow work.

  • Don’t show your Gold too soon.
  • Do not believe everything the innkeeper says 
  • Appear as everybody else does, so as not to show up in the Status Quo’s radar.
  • Be aware of the midwife of the Status Quo, The oldest King’s Daughter.
  • Marry the King’s Youngest Daughter and inherit the Kingdom.
  • Play the music that is uniquely your own that you brought into this world from the other.

The Narrative concludes: Next morning, however, when Hans got up and wanted to pay the landlord and travel further, behold his knapsack was gone! But he soon composed himself and thought, “Thou hast been unfortunate from no fault of thine own,” and straightway went back again to hell, complained of his misfortune to the old Devil, and begged for his help. The Devil said, “Seat yourself, I will wash, comb, and trim you, cut your hair and nails, and wash your eyes for you,” and when he had done with him,

he gave him the knapsack back again full of sweepings, and said, “Go and tell the landlord that he must return you your money, or else I will come and fetch him, and he shall poke the fire in your place.” Hans went up and said to the landlord, “Thou hast stolen my money; if thou dost not return it, thou shalt go down to hell in my place, and wilt look as horrible as I.” Then the landlord gave him the money, and more besides, only begging him to keep it secret, and Hans was now a rich man.

He set out on his way home to his father, bought himself a shabby smock-frock to wear, and strolled about making music, for he had learned to do that while he was with the Devil in hell. There was however, an old King in that country, before whom he had to play, and the King was so delighted with his playing, that he promised him his eldest daughter in marriage. But when she heard that she was to be married to a common fellow in a smock-frock, she said, “Rather than do that, I would go into the deepest water.” Then the King gave him the youngest, who was quite willing to do it to please her father, and thus the Devil’s sooty brother got the King’s daughter, and when the aged King died, the whole kingdom likewise.


The story ends with the Mystical Marriage. This tells us this is a complete cycle, a whole story, and one where the initiatory process is complete. This is our story yours and mine. To see what the shadow is asking each of us to be open too.





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