The Grateful Dead Tale Type
In the study of folktales The Grateful Dead, sometimes known as the Grateful Ghost, is a tale type classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification system as type 505 and found in many diverse folk and fairy tales from around the world. It often entails someone dying in debt and being refused a proper burial preventing the soul of the dead entry into heaven until their creditors are paid in full. The hero will pay off the debt and ensure a proper burial using the last of their money to do so. Then destitute they set off on a journey in which they meet up with a stranger who helps and guides them. Often towards the end the integrity of the hero is tested in some way and when it is passed the stranger will reveal himself to be the the soul or ghost of the corpse whose debts and burial was paid for. In gratitude the protagonist is then often granted their heart’s desire, hence the term The Grateful Dead.
The Story of Fair Brow
The following is a retelling of one such story called Fair Brow from Italian Popular Tales by Thomas Frederick Crane and tells how there was once a rich merchant trader who had fair and handsome son. He had sent him to the best school to receive a good education and when his son finally passed through the school his father decided that he should now learn how to make his way in life as a merchant trader. He gave him a ship and he gave him a chest full of money to buy goods that he could fill the ship with and sail from port to port and sell his wares for a profit. He told his son, “Your schooling is finished and now you are of an age where you must learn to make your own way in life. To help you start I will give you this ship with enough money to fill it with goods that you can sell in other places for profit. Use that profit wisely to buy more goods to replace those sold that you can again sell at a profit. Be careful with what you buy. Be careful with what you sell and be careful with what you do. Go now and learn how to trade.”
So following his father’s advice the young man set sail for a distant port to buy merchandise that he could sell for a profit. On the way, before he had bought anything at all, he stopped off at a passing port to take a break from the voyage and to see what the people were like. As he roamed around the harbor side he came across a bier with a corpse laid out upon it. He was curious to see that although some people looked the opposite way as they passed it others would leave a coin or two alongside the corpse. Perplexed the young man approached a passer by who had just placed a few coins on the bier and asked, “Surely this dead man should be buried properly and with dignity for surely he desires his grave. Why do your people keep him so?”
The passer by replied, “When this man was alive he accrued a pile of debt. Our custom is that no one is allowed to be given a proper and decent burial until all his debts are paid. As he is dead the only way his creditors can be paid is by the good charity of others. Until all his debts are paid in full we cannot bury him.” This greatly shocked the young man, who declared, “Let it be known to all that he is indebted to that I will pay his creditors whatever he owes them in full.” He went to the local authorities so that a declaration could be made public. After all of the dead man’s creditors had been paid there was not a single penny left of the money his father had given him to buy merchandise so he went back to his ship and set sail for home.
On his return his father was delighted but surprised to see him return so soon and asked eagerly how much profit he had made so quickly. The young man knowing his father would disapprove said, “Alas, father, as we sailed the open sea we encountered pirates who took all of the money you gave me in return for my life! I fear we have made no profit at all.” On hearing this father said, “In truth this is no consequence. I am happy that you are still alive and I will give you more money to start again but this time head in the opposite direction to your last voyage.”
Pirates From the Levant
And so his son sailed off in the opposite direction to his previous voyage. While he was at sea they came across a Turkish ship and thinking it would be better to communicate with them he hailed them as they drew near. As they came along side he said, “And where have you come from?”
“We sail from the Levant,” replied the captain.
“And what is your merchandise?” inquired the young man.
“All have I is one beautiful girl to sell,” replied the captain.
“How is that you have this girl to sell?” he asked
“We have stolen her from the Sultan and we will sell her for great profit because of her beauty,” replied the captain
“Show me this girl!” said the young man and the pirates brought her on deck, “I will buy her freedom from you.”
“How much will you give us?” They asked.
“I will give you all the money in this treasure chest,” said the young man showing them his father’s money.
“Then you shall have her,” said the captain handing the girl to him. As he had no more money was left the young man returned to his home port with the girl. On arrival he married her and then went to see his father.
His Father’s Wrath
His father was delighted to see him saying, “Welcome home my fair and handsome son! What rare bargains have you made? What vast profits have you gained? What riches do you bring home to me?”
His son said, “Father I bring you a most precious thing, the rarest of jewels, the most beautiful woman in the world, the daughter of a Sultan and I have brought her for my wife! I bring her now to show to you my merchandise!”
His father looked at him in shock and disgust and then exploded into violence striking both of them rapidly with his fists and pushing them out through the door into the street crying, “Foolish, foolish wastrel is this all you have brought for all the money I have given you! Out of my house and take her with you. Go!”
He continued kicking and striking them both until he was out of breath. Then he turned and silently went back inside his house and shut the door on them. Of course his son was greatly upset both for himself and for his new wife but he also had a problem because he had never learnt how to make a living for himself in the wide world. They wandered the town together and eventually found a room in a villa whose owner kindly allowed them to stay for awhile in return for work.
The young man spoke to his wife saying, “Whatever shall we do? I do not know any trade and I have no profession or anything to sell. How shall we live?”
“Fear not,” said his wife, “I have some talent as an artist and can paint the most beautiful works of art, though I say so myself. I shall paint and you shall sell what I paint, but you must reveal to no one who the artist is,“ she added.
Indeed she was very skilled and renowned in her own land for her paintings and now while she created the most exquisite works and he sold them. He soon found the best place to sell them was down on the harbor side as many ships would come and dock and many sailors and merchants and fine gentlemen would be found going about their business. They would often look for mementos, souvenirs and things to buy to take home with them. In this way the young man and his wife made their living and all though they did not make much money they had each other and found pleasure in each other’s company. In the evenings he would play upon musical instruments and sing to her as he was a good musician and a talented singer though his father had never recognized such attributes as being of any value. Nevertheless in their own company they were very happy and she would call him her “Fair Brow” as he was very handsome.
The Sultan’s Servants
Meanwhile, the Sultan had been distraught at the theft of his daughter and had sent out ships carrying his servants to search the corners of the Earth for her. One day one of these sailed into the bay and docked in the harbor in the town where the young man and his wife were living. The ship carried many of the Sultan’s servants who came ashore in search of his daughter. The young man saw them coming ashore and thinking this would mean good business went to his wife and said, “Paint as many pictures as you can for I sense a good day of business today!” So his wife painted very many beautiful paintings and said to her husband, “Remember, never tell anyone that I am the artist!”
Fair Brow nodded reassuringly and told her that he would not and took all of the paintings down to the harbor to sell. As he unpacked and exhibited her pictures many of the Sultan’s servants clustered around to admire the paintings and recognised her work. “Who is the the artist who paints such wonderful works?” asked one of the servants. This greatly excited the young man and he forgot his wife’s warning and said, “Why, it is my wife,” Then they said with great enthusiasm, “We will buy all of these. Can she paints us some more. We will buy all you can sell us! Can we meet her?” Thinking at last his luck had changed he told them, “Come to my house with me and she will paint all the pictures you could wish for!”
So he took them to his house and as soon as they saw his wife they knew she was the Sultan’s daughter and they took her and carried her back to their ship and sailed back to the Sultan who was delighted to have his daughter back again. Once the Sultan had got his daughter back he kept her out of sight in a guarded tower surrounded by a magnificent garden so that no one else could steal her away again.
The Old Fisherman
Meanwhile, Fair Brow was alone and sad without his wife whom he loved dearly. He was ashamed that he could not stop her being kidnapped and lacking the skills to make his way in the world alone he fell into a dark, bleak depression but was determined to go after his wife. Miserable and alone he took to wandering along the seashore hoping to find a ship that would take him on as a crew member and go in search of his wife, but he had no luck there either. Then one day he came across an old fisherman with his boat pulled up on the sandy shore and he was sat nearby mending his fishing net.
Approaching him he said, “Old fisherman, though I am strong and supple of body, you are far better off than I!” And the old man relied, “Why is that so young man? I am old and my bones ache and my muscles are so stiff I can barely move sometimes?”
The young man said, “You have a skill that helps you make your way in the world and I have none. Would you allow me to join you when you go fishing?” The old man looked him up and down and smiled saying, “That I will if you so wish it. You can use the pole to fish while I use the nets and perhaps together we shall catch plenty of fish!”
The Solemn Oath
With that the two made a solemn oath that from that moment they they would share all they had with one another and all that came their way in the future, whether it was good or bad. With the promise made the old fisherman then divided his supper into two equal parts giving one to Fair Brow and keeping the other. After they had eaten they went to sleep in the boat.
While they slept a storm brewed up and took the boat from the shore across the wide open sea finally throwing it aground on the shores of Turkey. Being strangers on the shore the people who found them claimed the boat and took them to the Sultan. He looked them up and down and took them as his slaves giving the old fisherman the task of growing his vegetables and the Fair Brow the task of growing the flowers. The two newcomers soon made friends with the other slaves and did not have a bad life. The work was steady and fair and they were fed well and not mistreated and even had spare time. In his spare time the old fisherman would make the most marvelous musical instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and clarinets and the fair Brow would play them and sings songs and the others would join in.
The Sultan’s Daughter in the Tower
High in the tower the music and singing floated up to the Sultan’s daughter with her maids in waiting. Hearing it took her mind back to her husband and the times he would sing to her while he played upon musical instruments. Then, she knew that this could only be her Fair Brow and she became excited. Almost not daring to look she peeped through the blinds to the garden below and there she saw that it was indeed none other than her husband who was singing so fair and playing such wonderful music.
It so happened that every day her maids in waiting would come down from the tower with a large basket which they would fill with flowers that Fair Brow had grown and take them up to the top of the tower to brighten up the apartment of the Sultan’s daughter. She said to her maids, “Today we will have some fun. When you are in the garden picking my flowers put that young man in the basket and cover him over with blooms and carry him up to me. Tell the gardeners to help you.”
So her maids went down to the garden and whispered to the other gardeners what the Sultan’s daughter had ordered. They thought it was a great joke so they put the young man in the basket. Despite his good-natured protests they covered him up and the maids carried him up to the Sultan’s daughter’s apartment at the top of the tower with no idea of what was in store for him. When they set the basket down in front of her he jumped up like a jack-in-the-box thinking to surprise her but found he was the one to be surprised as he jumped straight into the loving arms of his wife.
Surprised and delighted they hugged and kissed and then told each other their stories and then began planning how to escape the tower together. His wife, being the Sultan’s daughter had a tremendous prestige and power and she ordered that a ship be laden with pearls, gold and other treasures should be made ready in the harbor. The next day when the maids of honor took out the old flowers they hid in the baskets and the maids carried them down to the garden and down to the harbor and on to the ship. Once aboard she ordered the captain to weigh anchor and set sail and on a fair wind quickly made it to the open sea. Then Fair Brow realized he had forgotten something. The old fisherman had been left behind and they had promised to share everything together both good and bad. Despite his wife’s protests he made her order the captain to turn the ship around and go back for him even though this put them at risk of the Sultan catching them. He told her of the old fisherman and the promise they had made each other and said, “My love, I must hold my sworn word even if caught for I must never break a promise!”
As luck or fate would have it they found the old fisherman waiting patiently by the shore as if he was expecting them. With him safely on board they headed for the open sea and once far distant from land Fair Brow said to his friend, “Old fisherman we have a contract. Let us divide all the treasure half for you and half for me as we agreed.” The old man looked at him and replied, “Indeed we have promised each other and therefore I shall also have one half of your wife and you the other?”
The Grateful Dead
“My good friend, I am in your debt, therefore you take all of the pearls, gold and treasure and I will take my entire wife, or do you insist on me dividing her.” replied Fair Brow. Then the old fisherman said, “My good young friend you are generous beyond measure and wise knowing what is your greatest treasure. Therefore, know now that I am the soul that once belonged to the poor corpse that you paid all of your money to pay off his debts. Please do not divide her! All of the luck that you have now acquired stems from that one generous and merciful act of paying my debts and provide a proper burial that freed me from purgatory. Now I go to my proper place in Heaven. Farewell!” and with that he vanished and was never seen on Earth again.
And so the ship sailed on to the home port of Fair Brow and his wife and when they arrived their were great celebrations. His father was waiting on the shore to greet them, begging their forgiveness and Fair Brow was now rich beyond measure and he lived in peace and happiness with his wife. He would sing and play music to her and she would paint him marvelous pictures.
Curiosities of the Grateful Dead
As can be seen The Grateful Dead is a curious type of tale that explores the law of reciprocity and much more. In this story the living had a degree of power over the dead preventing someone who had died without paying their debts from entering heaven by withholding a proper burial until the debts were paid. Along comes Fair Brow and pays the debts and ensure a proper burial allowing the dead to enter heaven. This explores the idea that the living have a power over the dead first by refusing proper burial and second when Fair Brow pays the debt releasing the dead man from the bond that held him from entering heaven. It also explores the idea that the dead can come back and influence events on earth when the ghost of the dead man returns as the old fisherman to aid Fair Brow reach his heart’s desire. There is also another idea that if the dead are released from debts they return to help the creditors achieve their heart’s desire but the creditors will be tested to see if they are truly worthy of being granted it. Why? Perhaps because it would then be too easy for creditors to write off debts in the expectation of reward from the dead. They have to prove that their motive is purely altruistic and that they are truly worthy, hence the final test.
© 07/02/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright February 7, 2018 zteve t evans
- Crane, Thomas Frederick. Italian Popular Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1885.
- The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story – By Gordon Hall Gerould
- [PDF]Fair Brow
- The Grateful Dead: folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 505
- Grateful dead (folklore) – Wikipedia
- Spiritual Law of Reciprocity – Fox Ventures
- Reciprocity (social psychology) – Wikipedia
- The Law of Reciprocity – Bible Hub
- Old Fisherman (cropped) – Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- A Calm at a Mediterranean Port – Claude-Joseph Vernet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- A Woman in Turkish Dress – Jean-Étienne Liotard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I really enjoyed this post – your summary offers much food for thought. These are indeed “ghosts with a mission.”
Hi Jan, thanks and thanks for commenting. I find the idea of the Grateful Dead intriguing and there is more to come.
This is great! I grew up hearing some similar stories of heroes helping the dead at great cost, but I didn’t know there was an official name for them. Thank you for sharing this, I’ll remember it when I need a new ghost story to tell!
Thanks and thanks for commenting, appreciated!
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Oh – what a wonderful story! 😍