A Folktale of Disenchantment: A Small Research Note



I was looking for something else and stumbled on a German folktale fragment recorded by Adalbert Kuhn and F. L. W. Schwartz in 1848 that basically puts disenchantment in folkloric form.

It is very short. Loosely/hastily translated from the German it reads:

“Now there is no more magic (Zauberei) or witchcraft (Hexerei). This is because the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses cannot be used any longer. It was these books that meticulously inscribed and recorded all witchcraft, magic, and incantations (Besprechung). These two books are sealed in Wittenberg and they are exhibited as curiosities, but cannot be borrowed.”

I’m posting it here as a small research note. One of my arguments in The Myth of Disenchantment is that the story of magic’s departure has a long history in folktales themselves. For example, as I discuss, Chaucer, The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe (ca. 1380–1400) already says that the land was once full of fairy enchantment, but by the fourteenth century, nobody could see the elves anymore.

(Continue reading for a little more on the subject of fairytales of disenchantment)

We associate folktales with magic. They often recount stories of fairies or witches or sorcerous enchantments. But there are also tales like the one above that depict disenchantment.

Nor was Chaucer an isolated case, centuries before sociologists and anthropologists theorized the disenchantment or de-spiritualization of the world, there were folktales and legends about the departure of the fairies or the vanishing of magic. But with a crucial difference. These folk tales did not so much deny the existence of either magic or fairies, but rather described a feature they shared, namely that they were hard to find or that magic was once more prominent but had now become largely lost. Folkloric disenchantment therefore preserved magic and spirits even as it explained their seeming absence.

For more than a thousand years, spellbooks (such as The 6th and 7th Books of Moses above) often claimed to be recovering vanished or forgotten magical arts. The distance of the present from their putative source is part of what gives these books their rhetorical power. Many tales also begin from the premise that once upon a time, “magic was once a mighty force in the world, but not anymore,” only to stage some version of magic’s return. Moreover, as I argue in The Myth of Disenchantment, the gods, spirits, or fairies have been disappearing since at least Chaucer and arguably since Plutarch. In this respect, magic is constantly vanishing, even as magicians have claimed to recover it. In sum, disenchantment is part of the trope of magic itself.

The fragment above recorded orally by Kuhn and Schwartz in Kemnitz is a fun illustration of this.

It is also interesting to me that this tale associates the spellbooks with Luther’s Wittenberg…

Adalbert Kuhn and F. L. W. Schwartz. 1848. Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche. (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus), p. 90.

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