You may be familiar with the Grateful Dead. But are you familiar with “the Grateful Dead”?
The band by that name emerged from the hippie scene of San Francisco in the late 1960’s. They were a roots-rock outfit, putting a distinctly psychedelic spin on country, folk and the blues. They were a more trippy version of The Band, in many ways. Their name was trippy, for sure, and brought them some attention before they gained the cult following that came to define them: the legion of fans that would follow them on tour, the Deadheads. But the band fans simply call “The Dead” didn’t invent their unique name.
“The Grateful Dead” has a long history in folklore. In fact, many versions of the tale exist in cultures throughout the world. It is a leitmotif, that is, a recurrent theme throughout musical or literary history, one that has taken many forms but retains the same basic core. The story always centers on a recently deceased person who comes back in some form to repay good to the person who was good to them. Certainly, a hippie band from San Fran would appreciate the Karma in that! So the Grateful Dead (the band) took their name from “the Grateful Dead” (the ancient folk story).
I want to share with you one version of the tale. This take on the theme is from Costa Rica. Enjoy.
The Grateful Dead
Once upon a time there lived a king who became blind. Not a single doctor was able to help him recover his eyesight, and so the king’s three sons called upon a wise old medicine woman.
“You must capture the magical bird trapped in a gilded cage in a faraway land,” the old woman said. “Brush the tail of the magical bird over your father’s eyes, and he shall see again.” The three princes vowed to find the bird.
The eldest son set off at once to find the magical bird. As he was riding past a church, he noticed a crowd gathered, and he stopped to ask what the commotion was. There on the steps lay the body of a poor man, but no one would pay for his burial.
“A shame,” said the eldest prince as he rode on.
A few hours later the second son set off to find the magical bird, and he too saw the people gathered at the church steps. But the second prince was in a hurry, so he did nothing to help bury the poor man’s body.
In the early evening the youngest son saw the crowd as he set off on his journey. He felt so sad for the poor corpse that he handed half his purse of coins to one of the men and said, “Go buy a coffin for this poor soul.” Then he paid the priest to offer prayers for the soul of the dead man.
When all was settled, the youngest prince traveled on. As darkness fell, he suddenly saw a bright light glowing ahead of him. He squinted as that light came closer. He felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. “Who goes there?” he asked nervously.
“I am the soul of the man you helped,” said a voice. “Follow me.”
Although he was fearful, the prince followed the light. After a while the voice said, “It was good of you to help me.”
“Why would I not?” the prince asked. “Each of us is sometimes in need.”
“Not everyone is kind,” the voice said. As they talked, the prince’s fear vanished, and soon he felt as though this voice were a dear friend.
Together they traveled by night and slept by day, until after many days they reached the land of the magical bird. The light of the dead man’s soul led the prince into an emperor’s palace, past sleeping guards, and into a glittering room where the magical bird sat in a golden cage.
As the prince reached out to take the cage, the bird began to sing, a song so beautiful that it made the prince drift into a trance. But that marvelous song awoke the emperor’s servants, and when they saw the intruder, they threw him into the dungeon.
Now the emperor asked to see this bold young man, for he thought such a brave boy might rescue his magical horse stolen by a fearsome giant. “I’ll give you the magical bird,” the emperor told the young prince, “in exchange for the return of my magical horse.”
“I shall help you,” the soul’s voice whispered to the prince, and so the light led the prince that very night to the spot where the giant kept the horse tied to a tree.
There stood the horse, black as night, with a bright white star upon its forehead. The prince climbed the leafy tree, reached down and began to loosen the cord, but the horse cried, “Master, someone is stealing me!”
When the giant woke, he saw nothing but leaves waving in the evening breeze; the prince was well hidden. “Go to sleep,” the giant roared, “and don’t disturb my rest again for your nonsense!”
This time when the prince reached for the cord, the horse remained quiet, and when he was untied, the prince climbed down onto his back. Then the voice whispered, “See the knob upon his neck? Turn it and see what you shall see.”
The prince turned the knob, the horse flew into the sky, and they rode back to the emperor.
But the emperor was not willing to lose his magical bird. “Thank you for my horse,” he said, “now be on your way.”
At this, the voice whispered, “Grab the cage and turn the knob.” The prince followed his friend’s instructions, and before the emperor could stop them, the prince, the bird and the horse sailed into the air and were racing back to the prince’s kingdom.
When the prince arrived home, he ran to tell his brothers the good news. Together they would save their father’s sight, he told them.
Alas, the brothers had failed in their search for the bird, and when they saw their young brother with the beautiful horse and the magical bird, they were filled with envy. And so they plotted to destroy their brother and steal his goods.
They invited the prince to dine, and into his drink they slipped a sleeping potion. When he collapsed, they carried him to a cliff and dropped him over the edge.
Then the two older princes returned to the palace to announce their joyous news.
The king was thrilled. “And where is your brother?” he asked.
“He has run away, it seems,” the princes said.
“So he shall not inherit any part of my kingdom,” said the king.
The older princes brushed the bird’s tail over their father’s eyes, but his sight did not return.
“You have made a valiant effort, and that is all a father can ask of his sons. The kingdom shall be yours,” he said. But at that very moment, two mule drivers rode up to the palace with the young prince in their wagon.
You see, as the prince was falling from the cliff, the light from the dead man’s soul led the prince’s body toward a tree that snagged him and saved him from falling to his death. And in that tree the two mule drivers had found him, and now they carried him home.
The moment the young prince entered his father’s palace, the magical bird began to sing so beautifully, everyone stopped and turned, and when they saw the prince, they were amazed.
“You ran away,” the king accused his youngest son.
“I did not,” said the young man, “and I shall prove that to you.” He brushed the bird’s tail over his father’s eyes.
This time the king’s sight returned, and the young man told his tale.
Now the king realized that his oldest sons had lied to him and betrayed their brother.
But the young prince embraced his brothers. “All is forgiven,” he said, “for I know well that each of us is sometimes in need, and you are in need of forgiveness.”
The grateful soul of the poor dead man saw that all was well, so he wished his friend “Adios” and disappeared.