Episode Six - The Singing Bone and other tales

The Singing Bones (French Louisiana)

by Alcée Fortier

Cheselden’s Plates of the Human Bones, by William Cheselden, 1814

Cheselden’s Plates of the Human Bones, by William Cheselden, 1814

Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman who had twenty-five children. They were very poor. The man was good, the woman was bad. Every day when the husband returned from his work the wife served his dinner, but always meat without bones.

"How is it that this meat has no bones?"

"Because bones are heavy, and meat is cheaper without bones. They give us more for the money."

The husband ate, and said nothing.

"How is it you don't eat meat?"

"You forget that I have no teeth. How do you expect me to eat meat without teeth?"

"That is true," said the husband, and he said nothing more, because he was afraid to grieve his wife, who was as wicked as she was ugly.

When one has twenty-five children one cannot think of them all the time, and one does not see if one or two are missing. One day, after his dinner, the husband asked for his children. When they were by him he counted them, and found only fifteen. He asked his wife where were the ten others. She answered that they were at their grandmother's, and every day she would send one more for them to get a change of air. That was true, every day there was one that was missing.

One day the husband was at the threshold of his house, in front of a large stone which was there. He was thinking of his children, and he wanted to go and get them at their grandmother's, when he heard voices that were saying:

Our mother killed us,
Our father ate us.
We are not in a coffin,
We are not in the cemetery.

At first he did not understand what that meant, but he raised the stone and saw a great quantity of bones, which began to sing again. He then understood that it was the bones of his children, whom his wife had killed, and whom he had eaten. Then he was so angry that he killed his wife, buried his children's bones in the cemetery, and stayed alone at his house.

From that time he never ate meat, because he believed it would always be his children that he would eat.


Source: Alcée Fortier, Louisiana Folk-Tales in French Dialect and English Translation (Boston and New York: Published for the American Folk-Lore Society by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895), no. 17, p. 61.

The Little Bone (Switzerland)

Otto Sutermeister

Lotte Reiniger 

Lotte Reiniger 

Many years ago a wicked man lived in a pasture hut. Like other herdsmen, he spent the summer there with his cattle. He was quick tempered and arrogant. He had a poor servant boy, whom he tormented in every possible way with hard work, rough words, and cruel blows. One day he gave the boy a task to do which beyond the his strength. He was then overcome by such anger that he grabbed the boy and thrust his head into a a kettle of milk that was being boiled in order to separate it. Thus the boy died, and the herdsman threw his body into a mountain creek. Back at home he said, "The stupid boy must have been carried away by a rockslide. He went off to milk the goats, but never came back."


Many years passed, and the boys' bones hung unavenged on a cliffy bank of the mountain creek. From time to time a particularly strong rush of water would pick up one of the little bones, play with it for a while, and then leave it lying on a remote bank.

Once it happened that there was a fair in the valley. Everyone was making merry. The wicked herdsman, drugged by the wine, music, and dance, had lost all humility and good sense, and was reveling in his sinfulness. It was too hot for him inside, so he went out to the creek, which, swollen by a heavy, warm rain, was rushing by much stronger than usual. He kneeled down and took off his hat to scoop up some water. He drank the water that had run into his hat, but at the bottom he found a small white bone. He stuck it onto his hat and returned to the hall.

Suddenly the little bone began to bleed; and now everyone knew what had happened to the boy. The festivities were quickly brought to a close, and the evildoer was taken forthwith to the place of execution.


Source: Otto Sutermeister, "Das Knöchlein," Kinder- und Hausmärchen aus der Schweiz (Aarau: H. R. Sauerländer, 1873), no. 14, pp. 42-43.

Ye Xian (China)

By Aai-Ling Louie

Karolis Strautniekas from Cinderella animation, Victoria & Albert Museum

Karolis Strautniekas from Cinderella animation, Victoria & Albert Museum

During the time of the Ch'in and Han dynasties, a cave chief named Wu married two wives and each gave birth to baby girls. Before long Chief Wu and one wife died leaving one baby, Yeh-Shen, to be reared by her stepmother. The stepmother didn't like Yeh-Shen for she was more beautiful and kinder than her own daughter so she treated her poorly. Yeh-Shen was given the worse jobs and the only friend she had was a beautiful fish with big golden eyes . Each day the fish came out of the water onto the bank to be fed by Yeh-Shen. Now Yen-Shen had little food for herself but she was willing to share with the fish. Her stepmother hearing about the fish disguised herself as Yen-Shen and enticed the fish from the water. She stabbed it with a dagger, and cooked the fish for dinner. Yeh-Shen was distraught when she learned of the fish's death. As she sat crying she heard a voice and looked up to see a wise old man wearing the coarsest of clothes and with hair hanging down over his shoulders. He told her that the bones of the fish were filled with a powerful spirit, and that when she was in serious need she was to kneel before the bones and tell them of her heart's desires. She was warned not to waste their gifts. Yeh-Shen retrieved the bones from the trash heap and hid them in a safe place. Time passed and the spring festival was nearing. This was a time when the young people gathered in the village to meet one another and to find husbands and wives. Yen-Shen longed to go to the festival but her stepmother wouldn't allow it because she feared that someone would pick Yeh-Shen rather than her own daughter. The stepmother and the daughter left for the festival leaving Yeh-Shen behind. Yeh-Shen wanting desperately to go asked the bones for clothes to wear to the festival. Suddenly she was wearing a beautiful gown of azure blue with a cloak of kingfisher feathers draped around her shoulders. On her feet were beautiful slippers.They were woven of golden threads in a pattern of a scaled fish and the soles were made of solid gold. When she walked she felt lighter than air. She was warned not to lose the slippers. Yeh-Shen arrived at the festival and soon all were looking her way. The daughter and step-mother moved closer to her for they seemed to recognize this beautiful person. Seeing that she would be found out, Yeh-Shen dashed out of the village leaving behind one of the golden slippers. When she arrived home she was dressed again in her rags. She spoke again to the bones, but they were now silent. Saddened she put the one golden slipper in her bedstraw. After a time a merchant found the lost slipper, and seeing the value in the golden slipper sold it to a merchant who gave it to the king of the island kingdom of T'o Han. Now the king wanted to find the owner of this tiny beautiful slipper. He sent his people to search the kingdom but no ones foot would fit in the tiny golden slipper. He had the slipper placed on display in a pavilion on the side of the road where the slipper had been found with an announcement that the shoe was to be returned to the owner. The king's men waited out of site. All the women came to try on the shoe. One dark night Yeh-Shen slipped quietly across the pavilion, took the tiny golden slipper and turned to leave, but the king's men rushed out and arrested her. She was taken to the king who was furious for he couldn't believe that any one in rags could possibly own a golden slipper. As he looked closer at her face he was struck by her beauty and he noticed she had the tiniest feet. The king and his men returned home with her where she produced the other slipper. As she slipped on the two slippers her rags turned into the beautiful gown and cloak she had worn to the festival. The king realized that she was the one for him. They married and lived happily ever after. However, the stepmother and daughter were never allowed to visit Yeh-Shen and were forced to continue to live in their cave until the day they were crushed to death in a shower of flying stones.

By Aai-Ling Louie, Philomel books, NY, 1982

The Singing Bone (Germany)

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (From Dortchen Wild)

sérigraphie by Howell Golson

sérigraphie by Howell Golson

IN a certain country there was once great lamentation over a wild boar that laid waste the farmer's fields, killed the cattle, and ripped up people's bodies with his tusks. The King promised a large reward to anyone who would free the land from this plague; but the beast was so big and strong that no one dared to go near the forest in which it lived. At last the King gave notice that whosoever should capture or kill the wild boar should have his only daughter to wife.

Now there lived in the country two brothers, sons of a poor man, who declared themselves willing to undertake the hazardous enterprise; the elder, who was crafty and shrewd, out of pride; the younger, who was innocent and simple, from a kind heart. The King said, "In order that you may be the more sure of finding the beast, you must go into the forest from opposite sides." So the elder went in on the west side, and the younger on the east.

When the younger had gone a short way, a little man stepped up to him. He held in his hand a black spear and said, "I give you this spear because your heart is pure and good; with this you can boldly attack the wild boar, and it will do you no harm."

He thanked the little man, shouldered the spear, and went on fearlessly.

Before long he saw the beast, which rushed at him; but he held the spear towards it, and in its blind fury it ran so swiftly against it that its heart was cloven in twain. Then he took the monster on his back and went homewards with it to the King.

As he came out at the other side of the wood, there stood at the entrance a house where people were making merry with wine and dancing. His elder brother had gone in here, and, thinking that after all the boar would not run away from him, was going to drink until he felt brave. But when he saw his young brother coming out of the wood laden with his booty, his envious, evil heart gave him no peace. He called out to him, "Come in, dear brother, rest and refresh yourself with a cup of wine."

The youth, who suspected no evil, went in and told him about the good little man who had given him the spear wherewith he had slain the boar.

The elder brother kept him there until the evening, and then they went away together, and when in the darkness they came to a bridge over a brook, the elder brother let the other go first; and when he was half-way across he gave him such a blow from behind that he fell down dead. He buried him beneath the bridge, took the boar, and carried it to the King, pretending that he had killed it; whereupon he obtained the King's daughter in marriage. And when his younger brother did not come back he said, "The boar must have killed him," and every one believed it.

But as nothing remains hidden from God, so this black deed also was to come to light.

Years afterwards a shepherd was driving his herd across the bridge, and saw lying in the sand beneath, a snow-white little bone. He thought that it would make a good mouth-piece, so he clambered down, picked it up, and cut out of it a mouth-piece for his horn. But when he blew through it for the first time, to his great astonishment, the bone began of its own accord to sing:

"Ah, friend, thou blowest upon my bone!
Long have I lain beside the water;
My brother slew me for the boar,
And took for his wife the King's young daughter." 

"What a wonderful horn!" said the shepherd; "it sings by itself; I must take it to my lord the King." And when he came with it to the King the horn again began to sing its little song. The King understood it all, and caused the ground below the bridge to be dug up, and then the whole skeleton of the murdered man came to light. The wicked brother could not deny the deed, and was sewn up in a sack and drowned. But the bones of the murdered man were laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in the churchyard.


From Lower Hesse, whence also, though from two different places, we have two other stories. They begin like the story of The Water of Life,No. 97. An old King becomes ill and wants to give away his crown, but does not know to which of his three (or two) sons. At length he decides that it shall fall to the one who can catch a bear (or wild boar) with a golden padlock. The eldest goes out and has a horse, a cake, and a bottle of wine to take with him on his way. A little dwarf is sitting under a tree in the forest who asks kindly, "Whither goest thou?" and begs for a little piece of cake. The prince answers haughtily, gives him nothing, and is therefore "ill-wished" by the dwarf, that he shall seek the bear in vain. So he goes home again having done nothing. The second is sent out, but has no better success; and now it is the turn of the youngest, the simpleton, who is ridiculed, and who receives a stick instead of a horse, bread instead of cake, and water in place of wine. In the forest the little man speaks to him also; he answers civilly, and shares his food with him. Then the little man gives him a rope with which he catches the bear, and brings it home. The other story briefly relates that the second son slays the wild boar the eldest brother sees him coming, goes to meet him, and kills him. The rest of the story is the same. For a fourth story, see Colshorn, No. 71. A fifth from Switzerland is communicated by Wackernagel in Haupt's Zeitschrift, 3. 35, 36. A boy and a girl are sent into the forest to seek a flower, the one who finds it is to have the kingdom. The girl finds it and falls asleep. The brother comes up, kills the sleeping girl, covers her with earth, and goes away. Afterwards a shepherd-boy finds a little bone, and makes a flute of it. The little bone begins to sing, and gives an account of everything that has been done. A sixth is in Mullenhoff, No. 49.

The same saga occurs in an old Scotch ballad, a harper makes a harp of the breast-bone of the drowned sister, which begins to play of its own accord, and accuses the guilty sister (Scott's Minstrelsy, 2. 157-162). In the Faroese ballad on the same subject, we have the incident of the harp-strings being made of the murdered girl's hair; see Schwedische Volkslieder, by Geyer and Atzelius, 1. 86. In Polish, see Lewestam, p. 105. See also The Esthonian Tales of H. Neus, p. 56. In a Servian story in Wuk, No. 39, an elder-tube used as a flute reveals the mystery. The Bechuanas also, in South Africa, have a similar story.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.