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brothers grimm cologne cathedral

It is not the same to be inside Cologne’s Cathedral on cold winter evenings as it is on a summer’s day. The tale of the Brothers Grimm is more real when you hear the eerie echoed steps of strangers roaming a building illuminated only by candlelight.

My little sister grabs my hand as she asks “Do you think any Romans still haunt this place?” Her hand is all clammy and her eyes are big and wide, so big they could swallow the moon whole—the moon whose rays of light barely make it into the dark, dimly lit cathedral.

brothers grimm cologne cathedral

Before I answer her I look up. The building is so tall and there are so many windows you can hear the wind wooshing through the cracks that have not been properly repaired. The interior is gray and lonely, where the light from the candle can’t reach. The statues, with their shadows enlarged by the candlelight, are spooky even though they represent holy figures.

I pat her hand with my warmer one, “The Romans lived here far too long ago. I’m sure their ghosts must be gone by now.” It is true what I’m saying, but I am not so sure I sound convincing enough, so I try to think of another response. The Romans have left their mark all over the city, so it is likely they would have lived exactly where we stood at that very moment. ”So much has happened since that time, you have nothing to fear, Anna.”

brothers grimm cologne cathedral

I try to keep my voice quiet so no one will shush me, but the whispers scare my sister even more. The people that lived here have found their peace—I truly believe this. After all, an archbishop brought the relics of the Three Wise Men here in the 11th century. This place is holy and safe.” 

“But what about the curse?” My sister whispers the last two words. I wonder where she heard about this. I’m two years older but still find get the chills just thinking about it.

“What version of the story have you heard?” She tells me that a monster lives inside one of the gargoyles that watches over the cathedral. I breathe a sigh of relief. Though scary, to have a monster breathing down your neck as you explore these ancient grounds is not as bad as what I have heard.

I learned about the master builder Gerhard. He moved to Cologne with his family, looking for inspiration for his new cathedral—no easy task. One evening, walking along the Rhine, he became tired and fell asleep on a stone—but not just any stone. It was the devil’s stone!

brothers grimm cologne cathedral

Düvvel (the devil) saw this moment of weakness and bet Gerhard that his cathedral would not be done before he could “finish the digging of a canal from Treves to Cologne, fill it with water, and have merry ducks swimming on it.” The architect, both proud and determined, entered into this pact, offering his soul as collateral.

brothers grimm cologne cathedral

The construction moved quickly, but not quickly enough. After several visits from Düvvel, he was sure he would lose this bet. Sure enough, one day he looked down to see a silvery brook flowing from Treves, merry ducks swimming along its glittering surface. When Düvvel tried to snatch him, Master Gerhard jumped from the edge of the scaffolding into the depths below, screaming as he fell to his death. Following this tragedy, the cathedral was destroyed in a mysterious fire, believed to be the work of Düvvel.

What made this story even scarier for me was the real remains of a Roman water pipe found beneath the city! Perhaps Düvvel really had built the pipe, who knows? I was told this is the reason Cologne Cathedral was never completed. Every time the builders think the end is near, a new issue is uncovered, proving this building will never be finished—not by its original master planner or anyone else.

I keep this from my sister, knowing the story of a monster gargoyle is enough to frighten any little girl. I can feel this in the grip of her hand. “Don’t worry, there are more than 100 gargoyles on the roof and most of them look like animals!” I avoid telling her the ugly truth—that many of them also look like demons. “I am sure there are elephants, and giraffes, and little penguins waddling all over the roof right now,” I smile when my sister chuckles for a moment.

“Are you telling the truth, Peter?” She looks at me with doubt but I put on my most convincing face and cross my arms.

brothers grimm cologne cathedral
brothers grimm cologne cathedral

“Go take a sniff,” but there is no scent of animals in the air. We both breathe in the same, calming scent. “You smell frankincense, don’t you?” After thinking about this word that sounds vaguely familiar, she nods. “That’s because the cathedral is a sacred place. It’s even a World Heritage Site, protected by the United Nations! No one would protect a place that was cursed, would they?” I readjust my scarf in the cool cathedral as I wait for her reply.

“I guess not, if it is really is a herjiji site,” my sister trips over her words and I just smile, hoping this final thought will keep her from waking in the night, and me as well.

My mother’s voice shakes me from my thoughts, “Kommt!” We hurry from the building and immediately my mood brightens. We have been promised a great dinner of mouthwatering Schnitzel and sweet chestnuts from the nearby street vendor. As my sister and I distance ourselves from the Cathedral, all thoughts of Düvvel begin to fade, even as I feel the faint chill of eyes on my back.

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