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The Foolish Friend and other folktales in which a fool kills an insect resting on someone's head, with catastrophic consequences
The Mosquito and the Carpenter (The Jataka Tales).
The Foolish Friend (The Panchatantra).
The Gardner and the Bear (Bidpai).
The Hare and the Merchant (Tibet).
The Seven Wise Men of Buneyr (India).
The Bear and the Amateur of Gardening (Jean de La Fontaine).
Giufà and the Judge (Italy).
The Little Omelet (Italy).
Permission Granted, but Probably Regreted (Germany).
Foolish Hans (Germany).
The Mosquito and the Carpenter
The Jataka Tales
Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares, the Bodhisatta gained his livelihood as a trader. In these days in a border village in Kasi there dwelt a number of carpenters. And it chanced that one of them, a bald gray-haired man, was planing away at some wood with his head glistening like a copper bowl, when a mosquito settled on his scalp and stung him with its dart like sting.
Said the carpenter to his son, who was seated hard by, "My boy, there's a mosquito stinging me on the head. Do drive it away."
"Hold still then father," said the son. "One blow will settle it."
(At that very time the Bodhisatta had reached that village in the way of trade, and was sitting in the carpenter's shop.)
"Rid me of it!" cried the father.
"All right, father," answered the son, who was behind the old man's back, and, raising a sharp ax on high with intent to kill only the mosquito, he cleft his father's head in two. So the old man fell dead on the spot.
Thought the Bodhisatta, who had been an eye witness of the whole scene, "Better than such a friend is an enemy with sense, whom fear of men's vengeance will deter from killing a man." And he recited these lines:
Sense-lacking friends are worse than foes with sense;
Witness the son that sought the gnat to slay,
But cleft, poor fool, his father's skull in two.
So saying, the Bodhisatta rose up and departed, passing away in after days to fare according to his deserts. And as for the carpenter, his body was burned by his kinsfolk.
Source: The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), book 1, no. 44.
Part of the canon of sacred Buddhist literature, this collection of some 550 anecdotes and fables depicts earlier incarnations -- sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a human -- of the being who would become Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. Traditional birth and death dates of Gautama are 563-483 BC. The Jataka tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD. In spite of the collection's sacred and didactic nature, it nonetheless includes elements -- obviously derived from ancient folktales -- whose primary function is entertainment.
The Foolish Friend
A king, while visiting his wives' apartments, took a monkey from a neighboring stable for a pet. He kept him constantly close at hand for his amusement, for as it is said, parrots, partridges, doves, rams, monkeys, and such creatures are a king's natural companions.
It goes without saying that the monkey, fed on the various dishes that the king gave him, grew large and was given respect by all who surrounded the king. Indeed, the king, due to his love and exceeding trust of the monkey, even gave him a sword to carry.
In the vicinity of the palace the king had a grove artfully planted with many trees of various sorts. Early in the springtime the king noticed how beautiful the grove was. Its blossoms exuded a magnificent fragrance, while swarms of bees sang praise to the god of love. Thus overcome by love, he entered the grove with his favorite wife. He ordered all his servants to wait for him at the entrance.
After having pleasantly strolling through and observing the grove, he grew tired and said to his monkey, "I want to sleep a little while in this arbor of flowers. Take care that nothing disturbs me!" Having said this, the king fell asleep.
Presently a bee, pursuing the aroma of the flowers, betel, and musk, flew up and lit on his head. Seeing this, the monkey thought angrily, "What is this? Am I to allow this common creature to bite the king before my very eyes?"
With that he proceeded to drive it away. However, in spite of the monkey's defense, the bee approached the king again and again. Finally, blinded by anger, the monkey drew his sword and struck down the bee with a single blow. However, the same blow also split the king's head.
The queen, who was sleeping next to the king jumped up in terror. Seeing the crime, she said, "Oh, oh, you foolish monkey! What have you done to the king who placed such trust in you?"
The monkey explained how it had happened, but thereafter he was shunned and scorned by everyone. Thus it is said, "Do not choose a fool for a friend, for the king was killed by a monkey."
And I say, "It is better to have a clever enemy than a foolish friend."
Source: The Panchatantra, book 1, story 12.
India's most influential contribution to world literature, t he Panchatantra (also spelled Pañcatantra or Pañca-tantra) consists of five books of animal fables and magic tales (some 87 stories in all) that were compiled, in their current form, between the third and fifth centuries AD.
It is believed that even then the stories were already ancient. The tales' self-proclaimed purpose is to educate the sons of royalty. Although the original author's or compiler's name is unknown, an Arabic translation from about 750 AD attributes the Panchatantra to a wise man called Bidpai, which is probably a Sanskrit word meaning "court scholar." The fables of the Panchatantra found their way to Europe through oral folklore channels and by way of Persian and Arabic translations.
They substantially influenced medieval writers of fables.
The Gardener and the Bear
In the eastern part of Persia there lived at one time a gardener whose one joy in life was his flowers and fruit trees. He had neither wife, nor children, nor friends; nothing except his garden. At length, however, the good man wearied of having no one to talk to. He decided to go out into the world and find a friend. Scarcely was he outside the garden before he came face to face with a bear, who, like the gardener, was looking for a companion. Immediately a great friendship sprang up between these two.
The gardener invited the bear to come into his garden, and fed him on quinces and melons. In return for this kindness, when the gardener lay down to take his afternoon nap, the bear stood by and drove off the flies.
One afternoon it happened that an unusually large fly alighted on the gardener's nose. The bear drove it off, but it only flew to the gardener's chin. Again the bear drove it away, but in a few moments it was back once more on the gardener's nose. The bear now was filled with rage. With no thought beyond that of punishing the fly, he seized a huge stone, and hurled it with such force at the gardener's nose that he killed not only the fly, but the sleeping gardener.
It is better to have a wise enemy than a foolish friend.
Source: The Tortoise and the Geese and other Fables of Bidpai, retold by Maude Barrows Dutton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908), pp. 22-23.
Dutton's source appears to have been the Anvar-i-Suhaili, a Persion translation of the Panchatantra. According to Persian and Arabic traditions, the Panchatantra, was compiled by a man named Bidpai.
The Hare and the Merchant
A hare once invited his winged neighbors -- the delicate thrush, the singing golden oriole, and the thick-headed crow -- to his home. They sang and drank wine, and chatted away happily. Suddenly the hare hit upon an idea, and said, "We are having a very good time today, but we're still not having the utmost pleasure. Let us play a trick on someone, shall we?"
"All right!" everyone answered in unison.
The hare said to the crow, "In front of the yak-hair tent at the bottom of the hill sit two merchants, one fat and one thin. They are rapacity itself and come every year to our grasslands to rake in money. See how hard they are working at this very moment with their abacus, trying to find ways to get even more money. Brother Crow, would you dare to settle on the head of the fat merchant?"
The crow thought this would be easy and answered, "Why, of course! It's nothing."
"If you dare, we can have the greatest fun," continued the hare. "But remember this: When you settle on his head the first time, the fat merchant will say, 'Oh, what bad luck! A crow settles on my head. Drive him away quickly!' You should fly away when the thin merchant comes near you, and then come back and settle on the fat one's head a second time. The thin merchant will surely try to hit you with the abacus. This time you should fly right away. You'll see, we will have the most amusing jape."
They all came out to see the fun, and the crow flew off and settled on the fat merchant's head. The merchant screwed up his face and shouted, "Oh, what bad luck to have a crow settle on my head! Assistant, drive him away!"
The thin merchant raised his account book and drove the crow away. The crow cawed and circled above the bald head of the fat merchant. The fat merchant, his brows knitted, went over and sat beside the thin merchant and started to work intently on his abacus again.
Within a few moments the crow flew back and settled on the bald head for the second time. The merchant shouted again, "Oh what bad luck! There's a crow settling on my head again. Are you blind, assistant? Why don't you hit him? Beat him to death!"
Fluster by the fat merchant's anger, the thin one raised the abacus and hit at the crow. But instead of hitting him, for the crow had flown away, the blow fell right on the bald head. Blood flowed at once.
The birds, who had been watching the fun, roared with laughter and almost fell off the trees they were sitting on, and the hare had to roll in the grass for merriment. When the crow came back, they all went back to the hare's home and went on with their singing and drinking.
The two greedy merchants couldn't go on with their work on the abacus. In fact, a whole month passed before the fat merchant's wound was healed.
Source: Folk Tales from China, second series (Peking: Foreign Languages, 1958), pp. 18-20. No copyright notice.
The Seven Wise Men of Buneyr
Seven men of Buneyr once left their native wilds for the purpose of seeking their fortunes. When evening came they all sat down under a tree to rest, when one of them said, "Let us count to see if we are all here." So he counted, "One, two, three, four, five, six," but, quite omitting to reckon himself, he exclaimed, "There's one of us missing, we are only six!"
"Nonsense!" cried the others, and the whole company of seven began counting with uplifted forefingers, but they all forgot to count themselves.
Fearing some evil, they now rose up, and at once set out to search for their missing comrade. Presently they met a shepherd, who greeted them civilly and said, "Friends, why are you in such low spirits?"
"We have lost one of our party," answered they; "we started this morning seven in number, and now we are only six. Have you seen any one of us hereabouts?"
"But," said the shepherd, "seven you are, for I have found your lost companion; behold: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven!"
"Ah," answered the wise men of Buneyr, "you have indeed found our missing brother. We owe you a debt of gratitude. Because you have done us this service, we insist on doing a month's free labor for you."
So the shepherd, overjoyed with his good fortune, took the men home with him.
Now, the shepherd's mother was a very old woman, in her dotage, utterly feeble and unable to help herself. When the morning came he placed her under the care of one of the Buneyris, saying to him, "You will stay here and take care of my old mother."
To another Buneyri he said, "You take out my goats, graze them on the hills by day, and watch over them by night."
To the other five he said, "As for you, I shall have work for you tomorrow."
The man who was left in charge of the old crippled mother found that his time was fully occupied in the constant endeavor to drive off the innumerable flies which in that hot season kept her in a state of continual excitement and irritation. When, however, he saw that all his efforts were fruitless, and that he flapped the wretches away in vain, he became desperate, and, lifting up a large stone, he aimed it deliberately at a certain fly which had settled on the woman's face. Hurling it with all his might, he of course missed the fly, but, alas! he knocked the woman prone on her back. When the shepherd saw this he wrung his hands in despair. "Ah," cried he, "what has your stupidity done for me? The fly has escaped, but as for my poor old mother, you have killed her dead."
Meanwhile, the second Buneyri led his flock of goats up and down among the hills, and when midday came he rested to eat his bread, while many of the assembled goats lay down beside him. As he was eating he began to observe how the goats were chewing the cud and occasionally looking at him So he foolishly imagined that they were mocking him, and waxed wroth. "So," cried he, "because I am taking my food, you must needs crowd round and make game of me, must you?" And, seizing his hatchet, he made a sudden rush at the poor animals, and he had already struck off the heads of several of them, when the shepherd came running to the spot, bemoaning his bad luck and crying to the fellow to desist from slaughter.
That night was a sorrowful one for the trustful shepherd, and bitterly he repented his rashness. In the morning the remaining five wise men of Buneyr came to him, and said, "It is now our turn. Give us some work to do, too!"
"No, no, my friends," answered he; "you have amply repaid me for the trifling favor I did for you in finding your missing companion; and now, for God's sake, go your way and let me see you no more."
Hearing these words, the wise men of Buneyr resumed their journey.
Source: Charles Swynnerton, Indian Nights' Entertainment; or, Folk-Tales from the Upper Indus (London: E. Stock, 1892), no. 74.
The Bear and the Amateur of Gardening
Jean de La Fontaine
A certain mountain bruin once, they say,
Was wont within a lonely wood to stray,
A new Bellerophon secluded there,
His mind had gone, and left his brain-pan bare.
Reason on lonely people sheds no ray.
It's good to speak -- better to silent stay:
Both in excess are bad. No animal
Was ever seen, or was within a call.
Bear though he was, he wearied of this life,
And longed for the world's joy and the world's strife.
Then "Melancholy marked him for her own."
Not far from him an old man lived alone.
Dull as the bear, he loved his garden well;
Was priest of Flora and Pomona; still,
Though the employment's pleasant, a kind friend
Is needfull, its full charms to it to lend.
Gardens talk little, save in my small book.
Weary at last of their mere smiling look,
And those his dumb companions, one fine day,
Our man set forth upon his lonely way,
To seek a friend. The bear, with the same thought,
Had left his mountain, satisfied with naught.
By chance most strange the two adventurers meet
At the same turning. He's afraid to greet
The bear; but fly he can't. What can he do?
Well, like a Gascon, he gets neatly through:
Conceals his fright. The bear is not well bred;
"Here is my cottage; pray come in, my lord;"
Still growls, "Come see me!" but the other said,
"Do me the honor at my frugal board
To lunch al fresco. I have milk and fruit,
That will, perhaps, your worship's pleasure suit
For once, though not your ordinary fare.
I offer all I have." With friendly air
They're chums already before reaching home;
Still better friends when there they've fairly come.
In my opinion it's a golden rule:
Better be lonely than be with a fool.
The bear, who did not speak two words a day,
Left the drudge there to work and toil away.
Bruin went hunting, and brought in the game,
Or flapped the blow-flies, when the blow-flies came;
And kept from off his sleeping partner's face
Of wingèd parasites the teasing race.
One day a buzzer o'er the sleeping man
Poised, and then settled on his nose -- their plan.
The bear was crazy: all his chase was vain;
"I'll catch you, thief!" he cried. It came again.
'Twas said, 'twas done: The flapper seized a stone,
And launched it bravely -- bravely it was thrown.
He crushed the fly, but smashed the poor man's skull --
A sturdy thrower, but a reasoner dull.
Nothing's so dangerous as a foolish friend;
Worse than a real wise foe, you may depend.
Source: Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, translated into English verse by Walter Thornbury, book 10, fable 3.
Giufà and the Judge
One day Giufà went out to gather herbs, and it was night before he returned. On his way back the moon rose through the clouds, and Giufà sat down on a stone and watched the moon appear and disappear behind the clouds, and he exclaimed constantly, "It appears, it appears! It sets, it sets!"
Now there were near the way some thieves who were skinning a calf which they had stolen, and when they heard, "It appears, it sets!" they feared that the officers of justice were coming, so they ran away and left the meat.
When Giufà saw the thieves running away, he went to see what it was and found the calf skinned. He took his knife and cut off flesh enough to fill his sack and went home. When he arrived there his mother asked him why he came so late. He said it was because he was bringing some meat which she was to sell the next day, and the money was to be kept for him. The next day his mother sent him into the country and sold the meat.
In the evening Giufà returned and asked his mother, "Did you sell the meat?"
"Yes, I sold it to the flies on credit."
"When will they give you the money?"
"When they get it."
A week passed, and the flies brought no money, so Giufà went to the judge and said to him, "Sir, I want justice. I sold the flies meat on credit, and they have not come to pay me."
The judge said, "I pronounce this sentence on them: Wherever you see them, you may kill them."
Just then a fly lighted on the judge's nose, and Giufà dealt it such a blow that he broke the judge's head.
Source: Thomas Frederick Crane, Italian Popular Tales (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1885), no. 100, p. 293.Crane adds the following note:
The anecdote of the fly in the latter part of the story is found independently in a version from Palermo: The flies plagued Giufà and stung him. He sent to the judge and complained of them. The judge laughed and said, "Wherever you see a fly you can strike it." While the judge was speaking, a fly rested on his face and Giufà dealt it such a blow that he broke the judge's nose."
The trickster Giufà, who is described elsewhere as "stupid, lazy, and cunning" (can one be both stupid and cunning?), is featured in many Italian folktales. His exploits compare to those of Germany's Till Eulenspiegel and Turkey's Hodja, to mention but two of his many counterparts in other nations.
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The Little Omelet
Once upon a time there was a little woman who had a little room and a little hen.
The hen laid an egg and the little woman took it and made a little omelet of it, and put it to cool in the window.
Along came a fly and ate it up. Imagine what an omelet that must have been!
The little woman went to the magistrate and told him her story.
He gave her a club and told her to kill the fly with it wherever she saw it.
At that moment a fly lighted on the magistrate's nose, and the woman, believing it to be the same fly, gave it a blow and broke the magistrate's nose.
Source: Thomas Frederick Crane, Italian Popular Tales (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1885), no. 101, p. 294.
Permission Granted, but Probably Regreted
A peasant left a jug of milk with a neighbor for safekeeping. When he reclaimed the jug, the milk had disappeared. Angry words led to a lawsuit, and the judge decreed that the neighbor should pay for the milk, even though the latter claimed that the flies had consumed it.
"You should have struck them dead," said the judge.
"What?" replied the peasant, "You grant me permission to kill flies?"
"Yes indeed," responded the judge. "You have my permission to kill them anywhere you find them."
In that moment the peasant saw a fly on the judge's cheek. He stepped up to him and gave him a slap, saying, "I bet that cursed fly is one of those who drank up the milk!"
Because of the permission he had granted the peasant, the judge could do nothing about the slap.
Source: Leander Petzoldt, Deutsche Schwänke (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1979), no. 217, p. 228.
Petzoldt's source: Der große historische Appenzeller Calender auf das Jahr 1824.
Once upon a time there was a poor peasant woman. She was a widow and had but one son. His name was Hans, and he was very stupid.
It was summertime, and his mother gave him a large pot of honey, saying, "I am sending you to town to sell this, but don't let people say too much to you." She was afraid that people would bargain too much with him.
Arriving in town, he cried out, "Buy my honey!"
The people said, "How much does it cost?"
He said, "You are saying too much to me."
"Can't we at least ask how much it costs?"
"No," he said, "you have already said too much," and he packed up and left town.
Out in the country the flies and wasps swarmed around him, wanting his honey.
"Buy my honey!" he said. They were not able to say anything to him, so he poured his honey out on the ground. "You'll have to pay me in a week," he said.
Then he went home and told his mother, "I sold the honey and will get the money in a week."
A week later he again set off for town. Because of the money for the honey he took along a stout cudgel. He arrived at the spot, and there were still bees and flies there licking up the little honey that was left.
He said, "I want my money now," but they gave him nothing.
"I'll make short work of this," he said. "I am reporting you to the judge."
He went to the judge, who asked, "Just what do you want?"
"The flies and wasps bought honey from me," he said, "and now they refuse to pay."
The judge began to laugh, seeing that he was dealing with a real simpleton. "All I can tell you, is that whenever you see a fly you should strike it dead," he answered.
Just then a fly flew onto the judge's nose, and Hans hit the fly on his nose.
"Ouch, Jeez, my nose!" cried the judge.
Then Hans said, "I was hitting at the fly, not at your nose."
Then the judge thought, "He could kill someone if he sees a fly sitting on them. And who allowed it to happen? The judge, that's what people will say." So he asked, "How much did your honey cost?"
"Three hundred florins," said Hans.
So the judge wrote him a slip and sent him with it to the cashier, where he received his money. And with it, he happily returned home.
Source: "Der dumme Hans," Deutsche Märchen seit Grimm, edited by Paul Zaunert (Düsseldorf and Cologne: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1981), no. 56, pp. 310-313.
Zaunert's source: J. R. Bünker, Schwänke, Sagen und Märchen in heanzischer Mundart (Leipzig, 1906), no. 7, pp. 17 ff. Bünker's source: Tobias Kern, a street sweeper in Ödenburg.
The original story contains two additional episodes.