Following on from Deathwatch Gothica – which discusses the Deathwatch tag in English literature – this piece very briefly explores a seemingly strong German folk tradition in the “cult” of Deathwatch and how they seemed to elevate it into an art form.
The picture above shows an actual Deathclock (a cheerful little present from Maria Stewart to Lady Setoun) from the ‘Leipziger Illustrierte’, the first illustrated newspaper in Germany, published from 1843 until 1944 in Leipzig. I haven’t been able to establish exactly where it was made or what sort of time it told – and for some strange reason am a bit reluctant to translate any of the Latin engraving that might expand on this !!
There is a plethora on information out there on the origins of the Deathclock – none of which, in my opinion are satisfactory.
I recently came across a German folk song called “Die Totenuhr” on a site which archives texts of historic German choral arrangements and folk songs. The creator is Emily Ezust and her site is HERE. The words are by Rupertus, which were put to music in the mid 19th century by Benedikt Randhartinger.
(The verses are translated to English below and do not, unsurprisingly, have the same impact).
“Mutter, mutter! hörst du nicht,
Was da hämmert, was da bricht?”
“”Schlaf, mein Kind! ein Würmchen gräbt
Einsam, das im Holze lebt.”” —
“Mutter! warum gräbt und wacht
Denn das Würmchen in der Nacht?”
“”Großahn sagte, weil es mißt
Uns’res Lebens kurze Frist.””
“Mutter, Mutter! sag’ mir nur,
Das ist wohl die Todtenuhr?”
“”Schweig, mein Kind, schlaf ruhig ein,
Laß das eitle Fragen sein.””
“Mutter — Mutter!” ächzt das Kind,
“Hörst du wohl den bösen Wind?”
“”Ja mein Kind… komm näher her,””
Sprach die Mutter ahnungsschwer. —
Immer wilder braust der Sturm,
Immer schneller pickt der Wurm,
Immer fester hält das Weib,
Zitternd ihres Kindes Leib.
Horch! da kracht’s… [der Hütte Dach
Wankt… es]1 stürzt die Mauer nach,
Und begräbt in Schutt und Stein
Mutter und das Töchterlein. —
Seitdem schweigt die Todtenuhr —
Und es zirpt ein Heimchen nur
An des Doppelgrabes Rand,
Wo der Armen Hütte stand.
‘Mother, mother! Don’t you hear,
What hammers there, what breaks there?’
‘Sleep, my child!’ a worm is digging
Lonely, living in the wood.’
‘Mother!’ why is the worm digging
And awake during the night?’
‘Grandpa said, because it measures
Our lives’ short period.’
‘Mother, mother! Just tell me,
Is it the deathclock?’
‘Be silent, my child, fell asleep calmly,
Stop the vain questioning.’
‘Mother – Mother!’ groans the child
‘Can you hear the evil wind?’
‘Yes, my child… Come closer,’
Says the mother, fearing what is to come.
Wilder and wilder roars the storm,
Faster and faster picks the worm,
Stronger and stronger grasps the mother
Trembling her child’s body in her arms
Listen! There it crashes… [the hut’s roof
Shaking… and] the wall is falling down,
Burying in rubble and stones
Mother and the little daughter. —
Since then the deathclock is silent —
Only a cricket chirrs
At the double grave’s edge,
Where the poors’ hut stood.
It is important to re emphasize the point to both of these seemingly “off the wall” blogs. The beetle known as the Deathwatch in the UK – Xestobium rufovillosum – is just another wood borer that is only able to cause serious structural damage to heartwood where a decay fungus has already become established. It has an unwarranted reputation – born out of the mists of middle age folklore – which is still being perpetuated by unscrupulous remedial companies.
Many thanks to Johannes Munk of Aston University for help with translation.