The pope

The pope
The pope

The dance, as always, starts with the Pope, who is God's substitute on earth and thus the world's most powerful man. The pope probably did not have much power when the new text was written in 1701, long after the Reformation, but the original painting was from 1463, and Nathanael Schlott had to keep the old sequence in his new text.

Ludewig SuhlThomas Nugent

    der Tod
Komm, alter Vater komm, es muß geschieden seyn,
Kreuch aus dem Vatican in diesen Sarg hinein,
Hier trägt dein Scheitel nicht das Gold von dreyen Kronen(1)
Der Hut ist viel zu hoch, du must itzt enger wohnen

    II. Death to the Pope.
Come, hoary father, you must know,
When death doth call 'tis time to go;
Your robes and triple crown forsake,(1)
Instead of them this coffin take;
This coffin, which is far too small
To hold the least gew-gaw at all.


    der Pabst
Wie? Scheut der Tod den Blitz von meinem Banne nicht,
Hilft kein geweihtes Naß und kein geweihtes Licht,
So bleibt mir doch die Macht zu lösen und zu binden,
Wie? solt ich sterbend nicht den Himmelsschlüssel finden(2)

    III. The Pope's answer.
Talk so to me! I greatly wonder,
You think so little of my thunder.
Can't holy water, holy tapers,
Stand me in stead against thy vapours.
Me, who have power to release,
Or bind, those sinners whom I please.
'Twere passing strange, were I to die
Without the keys of heav'n, not I.(2)

Footnotes: (1) (2)

The pope has a triple crown (this trivia is useful when identifying dancers in a dance of death). The three crowns symbolize the papal power over Heaven, Earth and Hell.
Release and bind...: Compare with Jesus' words to Peter the Apostle: "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

"To bind" means to make unlawful, and "to loose" means to make lawful. The pope is a successor of Peter the Apostle, so what it means, in effect, is that whatsoever rules the pope maketh up shall receive the Divine rubberstamp of instant approval.