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Friday night folklore: The Imp in the Church Rafters

Once upon a time there was a priest who served in a country parish somewhere in Iceland. One Sunday as he was delivering his sermon a man in the congregation began to laugh uproriously. Both the priest and the congregation ignored him, finding it unseemly to interrupt the service. The priest finished his sermon, stepped down from the pulpit and finished the service as usual.

Once he was out of the church he asked around for the man who had been laughing and was told who he was. The priest sent for the man and asked hin sternly what had been so funny that he had been unable to restrain himself from laughing under the sermon and scandalising the congregation.

The man said that it was not the contents of the sermon that made him laugh, and explained: “I saw something, dear Sir, that I think you did not see and probably no other member of the congregation.”

“And what was that?” asked the priest.

“When you had just stepped into the pulpit,” said the man, “two old women who were sitting at the back on the women’s side began to argue and pour scorn on each other. At that moment I looked up, straight at the beam over their heads and noticed a small ugly imp sitting there. In one paw it had a wrinkled piece of skin parchment and in the other a horse’s leg bone. It listened intently, with its head to one side, to each and every insult and wrote everything down on the parchment with the bone, until it had filled up the parchment. Rather than stop, it began to stretch the parchment by putting one end between its teeth and pulling at it with its paws. This gave it enough space to continue writing for a while. Again it filled the parchment, and again it stretched it for more space. 

This went on for some time, with the imp alternating between stretching and writing, but finally it couldn’t stretch the parchment any more, but still the old women continued arguing and as the imp seemed not to want to miss anything, it made a final attempt to stretch the parchment, but it tore in half and the imp fell backwards and would have tumbled down to the church floor if it had not had the presence of mind to grip the beam with its claws as it fell. It was then, good Sir, when I couldn’t help myself and had to laugh out loud. I would like to humbly apologise to both you and the congregation for disrupting the sermon.”

The priest felt that the man had had good reason to laugh, but ordered him to confess his sins as a warning to others. But the also said that he would wish that the next time the old women came to church it would not be to entertain the Devil by throwing insults at each other under the sermon.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.


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