There once lived a sultan who had lands and riches but no son to pass them on to. For many years, the sultan prayed and longed for a son but his wife bore no children. Whenever this sultan traveled across his lands, he looked at them sadly thinking about how he had no son to inherit them. It was during one of these travels that a demon came to his tent in the middle of the night.
“I can give you medicine for your wife to bear children,” the demon said. “But what will you give me in return?”
“I will give you half of my property!” the sultan proclaimed eagerly.
“That is not enough,” the demon declined. “I shall not accept it.”
“I will give you half of my lands!” the sultan begged.
“I am not satisfied,” replied the demon.
“What do you want then?” the sultan asked, exasperated.
“If your wife bears two children, I want you to give me one of them,” the demon declared.
“I agree to your terms!” the sultan said. The demon extended its hand to the sultan and in its palm, sat a small leather bag.
“Give the contents of this bag to your wife,” the demon instructed. “Let her eat it and within a month she will become pregnant.”
The sultan hurried home and gave the medicine to his wife. She ate it and within a month she became pregnant. When she bore her first child it was a boy. She became pregnant again and bore a second son, and then a third. The sultan was thrilled!
When the children were weaned, the demon came to him.
“Let us divide the children as we agreed,” it said.
“They are still young,” the sultan protested. “Let them grow older and at least learn how to read.”
“Give them to me and I will teach them all they need to know,” the demon suggested. The sultan was hesitant but he remembered that the demon had given him medicine which made it possible for his wife to bear children. This creature must have all kinds of knowledge, he reasoned with himself. So he relented and gave all three of his sons to the demon.
The demon took the boys to its home. It was a big house with many rooms whose doors the demon kept locked. The demon raised the boys like its own children, teaching them all they needed to know. It soon realized that one of the boys, the youngest, was much cleverer than his brothers so it gave the child special attention. Eventually, the boys were old enough to return to their father so the demon took them back to the sultan’s palace.
“Come, my friend,” it said. “Let us divide the children today.”
The demon stood the clever child separate from his brothers and asked the sultan to choose. The sultan quickly selected the two older boys, leaving the youngest for the demon. Happy with the sultan’s choice, the demon took the child and returned to its home. It gave the child a ring of keys and said to him:
“I must go on a journey. The house is yours. Go where you please and do what you want.”
After the demon left, the young boy stayed only in the parts of the house he was familiar with, never venturing any further. But one day, when the demon had been away for a month, the boy decided to explore the house. He took one of the keys and opened a door. The room he entered was empty except for a pot sitting in the middle of it, in which something bubbled noisily. The boy approached the pot cautiously and looked inside. It was filled with molten gold but it was no heat came from the pot! Curious, the boy reached out and touched the liquid. It didn’t burn him but it clung to his finger and didn’t come off even when he frantically tried to wipe it off. Frightened, he ran out of the room, re-locked the door, and tied a rag around his finger to cover the gold.
The demon returned not long after that incident.
“What happened to your finger?” it asked the boy.
“I cut it!” the child lied.
After a week, the demon left again and the boy, burning with curiosity, decided to see what was in the other rooms. He took the ring of keys and opened one door. The room was empty like the one he’d opened before except for a pile of goat bones. He opened a second door and found a pile of sheep bones in the room. He opened a third door and found a pile of ox bones. He opened a fourth door and found a pile of donkey bones. He opened a fifth door and found a pile of horse bones. He opened a sixth door and found a pile of human skulls. Alarmed, he opened a seventh door and, to his relief, found a living horse.
“Who are you?” the horse asked. “Where do you come from?”
“This is my home,” the boy replied. “I live here with my father.”
“Your father is an evil demon who eats animals and humans,” the horse replied. “When it returns, it will call its friends. They will eat me and they will eat you too. Then, they will deep our bones into their magic pot to make gold, silver and other precious stones.”
“What are we to do?” the boy asked urgently, thinking about the rooms full of bones, the pot he had seen, and the gold still clinging to his finger.
“We must leave,” the horse said. “Untie me and I will take you far away from here.”
The boy unfastened the horse and led it out of the room.
“Before we leave,” the horse said, “open the other doors. The demon has many rooms filled with treasures it has made. I will swallow them all so we can take them with us.”
The boy rushed through the house, opening more doors. The horse followed him, swallowing rooms full of gold, silver, diamonds, pearls and other treasures. But they wasted time gathering the treasures and the demon returned before they could run away. They hid in a corner of the house while the demon searched for the boy.
“Boy, where are you?” it called.
“I will tell you what to do,” the horse whispered to the boy. “The demon will ask you to go and gather firewood. Tell it you don’t know how to do it. It will do it itself. When it asks you to make a fire, tell it you don’t know how to make a fire. It will build the fire itself and ask you to bring a big pot. Tell it the pot is too heavy for you to carry. It will fetch the pot itself, put it on the fire, and fill it with ghee. When the ghee is hot, it will ask you to dance around the pot. Tell it to show you how to dance. When it starts to dance, push it into the pot of hot ghee and run away. I will be waiting for you under the big tree near the road. Now go.”
The boy went to the demon and the horse stole out of the house.
“There you are!” the demon cried when it saw the boy. “Come, I have some work for you to do. Tomorrow, I will host a feast for my friends. You must go and bring me some firewood.”
“It would please me to do as you ask, my father,” the boy said, “but I don’t know how to do that kind of work. You must show me.”
The next day, the demon rose up early in the morning and went looking for the firewood itself. When it returned, it put the pile of wood in front of the boy and told him to build a fire.
“It would please me to do as you ask, my father,” the boy said again, “but I don’t know how to do that kind of work. You must show me”
And so the demon built the fire itself and asked the boy to fetch a large pot.
“It would please me to do as you ask, my father,” the boy said, “but the pot is too heavy.”
The demon fetched the pot itself, filled it with ghee, and set it on the fire. When the ghee was hot, it said to the boy:
“My friends will need to be entertained. Do you know how to dance? Show me the steps you know.”
“It would please me to do as you ask, my father,” the boy said, “but I don’t know how to dance. You must show me.”
And so the demon began to dance around the fire. When its back was turned, the boy pushed it into the pot full of hot ghee and ran away. He found the horse waiting for him as promised.
“Is it done?” the horse asked.
“It is done,” the boy replied.
Together, the boy and the horse traveled far away. They used the treasures stolen from the demon to buy land and build a big house. The boy grew into a handsome man who was known for his knowledge and wisdom. He soon became friends with the sultan of that land who loved him like his own son. He married the sultan’s daughter and she bore him a son. He lived happily to the end of his days with his wife, his son, and the horse who he loved as he loved his own soul.
Source: Swahili tales : as told by natives of Zanzibar by Edward Steere.
This is a Swahili folktale from Zanzibar, retold and contributed by Mythological Africans.
It is a part of our series, Folklore Worldwide. We are currently open to submissions from around the world, and you are welcome to send us your stories!