Saint Peter and the Geese

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Sankt Peter mit der Geiß; Saint Peter and the Geese

Sachs’s poem on human arrogance and faith in God takes as its main characters key figures from the New Testament – Christ and the apostle, St Peter. However, the tale has no basis in the Bible as such; the two figures simply represent the divine on the one hand and mortal fallibility on the other. St Peter accuses Christ of tolerating sinful behaviour unjustly and maintains that he would do it differently if he had the power. So Christ gives him the power to be God for a single day:

Der Herr sprach: »Nun, so magst verwalten,

Petre, die hohe Herrschaft mein;

Heut den Tag sollst du Herrgott sein.

Schaff und gebeut all’s, was du willt,

Sei hart, streng, gütig oder mild,

Gib aus den Fluch oder den Segen,

Gib schön Wetter, Wind oder Regen;

Du magst strafen oder belohnen,

Plagen, schützen oder verschonen:

In Summa, mein ganz Regiment

Sei heut den Tag in deinen Händ.«

The Lord spoke: “Well, then, Peter, if you want to administer my high regiment, then today you shall be the Lord God. Do and command everything that you will, be harsh, strict, kind or mild, mete out curse or blessing, provide good weather, wind or rain; you may punish or reward, plague, protect or spare: in sum, my entire regiment shall be in your hands today.”

St Peter addresses God as an equal here – note that there is no clear distinction in the poem between God and Christ. His accusation that God is not ruling humans as well as he might is indicative of St Peter’s human arrogance. God indulges his creation by patiently giving him the opportunity to see for himself what it is like to wield such responsibility over not only humans, but also the earth and its weather, according to his own judgement.

Die Geiß war mutig, jung und jäh

Und blieb drum gar nicht in der Näh’,

Lief auf der Weide hin und wieder,

Stieg den Berg auf, den andern nieder,

Schlupft’ hierhin, dorthin durch die Stauden,

Petrus mit Ächzen, Blasen, Schnauden

Mußt’ immer nachtrollen der Geiß;

Und schien die Sonn’ gar überheiß,

Der Schweiß über seinen Leib abrann.

Mit Unruh verzehrt’ der alte Mann

Den Tag, bis auf den Abend spat

Verdurstet, kraftlos, müd und matt

Die Geiß er wied’rum heim gebracht.

The geese were brave, young and rash, and so didn’t stay close at all; they ran into the meadow now and then, went up one hill and down another, slipped in here and in there between the bushes. Peter, groaning, puffing, snorting, always had to charge after the geese; and all the while the sun shone extremely hot, the sweat ran down his body. The old man spent the day in a dither, until in the late evening, thirsty, drained, tired and feeble, he brought the geese back home.

The geese are a metaphor for humans, whose actions and decisions are not always the wisest and can endanger their souls. Keeping them safe from harm – herding them – is a much more difficult task than St Peter, a mortal, can contend with, although here he does manage to bring all the geese back home without harm. The banality of St Peter’s day of ‘being God’, in which he finds himself herding poultry for an elderly woman, comprises the humour of this exemplary tale and serves to highlight the enormity of God’s task in ruling over humans.

O Herr, vergib mir meine Torheit!

Ich will fort der Regierung dein,

Weil ich leb’, nicht mehr reden ein.«

Der Herr sprach: »Petre, dasselbe tu,

So lebst du fort mit stiller Ruh,

Vertraue mir in meine Händ’

Das allmächtige Regiment.«

“...Oh Lord, forgive me my foolishness! From now on I will never, as long as I live, criticise how you govern.”

The Lord said: “Peter, if you do that, you’ll continue living in quiet peace, trust me with the almighty regiment in my hands.”

These are the closing lines of the poem and offer up the main point of the lesson for its readers. St Peter has recognised his foolishness in thinking that he could do better than God and is duly humble and repentent. He – and all Christians – is advised to place their faith in God alone in judging and directing their lives, even if things sometimes seem to be going badly.