He is probably the most famous Jester in European cultural history and is still the symbol of the funny mocker.
But if you leave aside the children’s versions of his stories and look at the original narrative, you will soon notice that this Till Eulenspiegel stands out above all for his crude non-conformism and shows more signs of sheer malice than we would like to see today.
The historical person Till Eulenspiegel was probably born in 1300. A popular book says: “In the woods called Melme, in the land of Saxony, in the village of Knetlingen, Ulnspiegel was born, and his father was Claus Ulnspiegel and his mother Ann Witcken.
He spent most of his life in the Braunschweig area, but his travels, unusual for his time, took him not only to Berlin, Ulm and Nuremberg, but as far as Prague and Rome.
He probably died around 1350 in Mölln, where a memorial stone has been commemorating him since the 16th century.
The stories around his life were extremely popular and were passed on orally for decades.
However, they were not collected and written down until around 1510 in the collection “Ein kurtzweilig lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel, geboren vß dem land zu Brunßwick, wie er sein leben volbracht hat. XCVI of his stories” (an entertaining story about Till, born in Brunswick, and how he spent his life).
The author was probably Hermann Bote, who lived in Brunswick as a kind of civil servant. However, only the name of the printer and publisher Johannes Grüninger, who published the book, is considered certain.
The collection of stories spread quickly and enjoyed great popularity. As a result, it was translated into many European languages as early as the 16th century, including Latin, French, Dutch, English and Polish.
Over the centuries, the stories were rewritten and adapted to the spirit of the times, so that the originally rough figure of Till Eulenspiegel became an increasingly likeable buffoon.
This led, among other things, to the original meaning of his name being forgotten and at the same time all other associations that were attached to it.
Today, it is common to understand his name only as a summary of the words owl and mirror. Probably also because he was already depicted with these attributes in his hands in the first edition of the story.
What is forgotten, however, is that owl and mirror have a long tradition in European cultural history and that their use has always been associated with a certain meaning.
Thus the literary-didactic tradition of the mirror (just think of the layman’s mirror or the Swabian mirror) has existed since antiquity as a means of self-knowledge. Eulenspiegel’s behaviour of taking phrases literally also clearly takes up this idea of pointing out the discrepancy between target and actual state.
Not least, the mirror is also a well-known attribute of the fool. Perhaps this is precisely the role of this figure: to hold up a mirror to society, in which not his but its foolishness is reflected.
The symbol of the owl stands in stark contrast to the clearly defined role of the mirror.
In ancient Greece it was considered a bird of wisdom, but its meaning changed over time and in the Middle Ages it was seen as a sign of the devil.
It is interesting to note that both levels of meaning were probably used when Till was named. Namely the older tradition as a sign of his intellectual superiority over his contemporaries and the hidden wisdom in his pranks. At the same time, however, the tradition of the Middle Ages points to the destructive and inflammatory potential of his stories.
In addition to this more intellectual reappraisal, we also have several puns that point to the origin of his name.
The best known is certainly the phrase “ick bin ulen spegel” (I am Ulen Spegel). Today, the meaning of this phrase is mainly thought of as “I am your mirror” or “I hold the mirror up to you”.
However, a version that is hardly known today is much coarser. For the Middle Low German word “ulen” also means “to wipe”, and the word “spegel” also has the meaning “buttocks” (it is not without reason that the light-coloured fur on the hindquarters of deer and stags is still called “Spiegel” in hunter’s language).
So the exclamation “Ul’n spegel” means “Wipe my bottom”, or, to put it simply: “Lick my ass”.
A version that I like much better, because it shows more of this rough free thinker, who was pressed into a world that was too narrow for him, than the children’s stories want to make us know.
And so I think it would be much more honest if we remember not only the Till of the funny pranks, but even more the fool who shouted his desperate “Lick my ass” to the world.