Killing of Old People

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 981
and other legends about geronticide
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2019


  1. A Blessed and Happie People (Pliny the Elder).

  2. Why People Today Die Their Own Death (Retold by D. L. Ashliman).

  3. How the Killing of the Old Men Was Stopped (Serbia).

  4. Grandfather and Grandson (Serbia).

  5. A Story from the Time of the Romans (Romania -- Transylvania).

  6. The Old Man Who Solved Riddles (Macedonia).

  7. Killing of Old Men (Romania).

  8. Duck Under, Duck Under (Germany / Poland).

  9. A Wendish Legend (Germany / Poland).

  10. The Old Heathens (Germany).

  11. Gillings Bluff (Iceland).

  12. Kith-Rocks and Kith-Clubs (Sweden).

  13. The Man with the Hatchet (England).

  14. An Irish Deathbed Scene (Ireland).

  15. Link to The Mountain Where Old People Were Abandoned (Japan).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

A Blessed and Happie People

Pliny the Elder

Beyond the North pole there is a blessed and happie people (if wee may beleeve it) whom they call Hyperborei, who live exceeding long, and many fabulous and strange wonders are reported of them....

The countrey is open upon the Sunne, of a blissefull and pleasant temperature, void of all noisome wind and hurtfull aire. Their habitations be in woods and groves, where they worship the gods both by themselves, and in companies and congregations; no discord know they; no sicknesse are they acquainted with. They never die, but when they have lived long enough: for when the aged men have made good cheere, and annointed their bodies with sweet ointments, they leape from off a certaine rocke into the sea. This kind of sepulture, of all others is most happie.

Why People Today Die Their Own Death

Retold by D. L. Ashliman

In ancient days people did not die their own death. Instead, law and tradition required that they be taken into the mountains and pushed over a sacred cliff when they reached a certain age.

One family could not bring themselves to depart from their old grandfather, and so when his time came, they hid him in their cellar instead of taking him to the cliff of death.

At this time there was a great famine in the land. The crops had failed, the food stores were exhausted, and indeed, no one even had grain left for seed.

The grandfather, from his hiding place in the cellar, told his kin to remove the thatched roofs from their houses and rethresh the straw for any kernels of grain that may have been missed the first time. They did as he suggested, and harvested a good measure of forgotten grain.

Acting again on the old man's advice, they sowed the newfound grain that very day. Miraculously their crop sprouted, matured, and was ready for harvest the next morning.

The king, who quickly learned of this miracle, demanded an explanation. Thus the family was forced to admit how they had violated law and tradition by sparing their old grandfather. The king, impressed by the family's courage and by the old man's wisdom, decreed that from that day forth old people would be allowed to live until they died their own death.

How the Killing of the Old Men Was Stopped


In old times it was the habit to kill old men when they had passed fifty years. A man who was nearing his fiftieth year had a good son, who was very sorry for his father and hid him in a wine vat, in which he cared for him secretly.

Once he bet with some of his neighbors who should see the first rising of the sun in the morning. The merciful son told his father of his bet, and his father said to him, "Be careful, and when you are at the place to see the rising of the sun take, the precaution not to look to the east as the others will do, but look instead to the west at the highest point of the mountains, and you will win the bet."

The son did as his father had advised him, and so saw first the rising of the sun. When the neighbors asked him who had advised him what to do, he said it was his father, whom he must hide and protect from a forced death. The people were astonished at such clever advice and concluded that the old men are clever and that they do not deserve to be killed, but respected.

Grandfather and Grandson


On the right bank of the river Mlava, near the village of Krepoljin, is situated a very high hill, Gradatr (Fort) by name, on which one can see the ruins of an old disabled and deserted fort. The popular tradition says that it was once a Roman or Latin fort. The Romans who occupied this fort were very bellicose people. Their leader ordered all the holders of the fort up to forty years of age to be active fighters, from forty to fifty to be guards of the fort, and after fifty to be killed, because they have no military value. Since that period the old men were killed.

An old man who was nearing his fiftieth year had a grandson who was very fond of him. On the eve of the day on which the old man was ordered to be killed, the enemy attacked the fort. The grandson used this opportunity and forced his grandfather to fly. The old man fled and hid himself in a cave which was in the neighborhood. After the enemy were dispersed, and when the people looked for the old man, they could not find him.

Some time after, the leader commanded them to be ready to go to war in a distant land.

At the moment when the army was prepared to start, the grandfather appeared secretly to his grandson and said to him, "For this long way ride a mare which has a colt, and when you come to an unknown land, kill the colt, and then go farther. God protect you! Farewell!"

The grandson obeyed the orders of his grandfather, rode a mare with a colt and went with the leader and his army to the war. They went for three days and then they came to a river, on the opposite side of which was a dense forest. The young man looked on all sides and was sure that he was in a perfectly unknown land. Then he secretly killed the colt. Crossing the river the army marched through the forest. After six days of traveling they came to a vast plain, where they found the enemy waiting for them. The fight was very severe, and at the end the leader and his army were defeated and forced to flee. The vanquished army did not know the way, but the mare of the young man went in the direction where her colt was lost and so led them to the river, from which they knew the way to their own country.

Everybody was astonished, and the leader asked the young man who taught him to act so, and he, after some hesitation, told him that it was his grandfather. When they came home the leader invited the old man, recognized his cleverness, and ordered that further on the old men should not be killed, but respected, because they knew much more than the young men.

A Story from the Time of the Romans

Romania (Transylvania)

In olden times it was the custom to kill the old people because they were considered useless. A young man did not have the heart to kill his old father, but as he stood in fear of the others, he hid his father in the cellar in an empty cask. He gave him food and drink secretly, so that not a soul was able to discover his secret.

There came suddenly the order that all men capable of bearing arms should get ready to fight a terrible monster which was spreading round its lair misery and trouble. The pious son did not know how to provide during his absence for the imprisoned father, so that he should not die of thirst and hunger. He brought all the victuals that were in the house, and he told his father of his trouble, inasmuch as he might never return, and that his beloved father would in consequence die a miserable death.

The old man replied, "Should you not return, I willingly give up my wretched body to death. In order, however, that you should not die through this monster, listen to my advice. It will be a help to you. The cavern in which that monster lives has many hundred passages and corners which are crossing and re-crossing one another, so that even if you should succeed in killing the monster, you would never be able to find the way out, and you will all die of hunger and thirst. Take therefore our black mare with her foal with you to the mouth of the cave and there kill and bury the foal and take the mare with you. She is sure to bring you back after you have killed the monster."

After the old man had thus spoken, the young man took leave of him with tears in his eyes and went away with the other men. They arrived at the mouth of the cave. He killed the foal as his father had advised him, but he did not tell the others why he did so.

After a heavy fight they succeeded at last in killing the monster, but fear seized upon the warriors when they discovered that in spite of much searching they could not find the way out. Then the young man took the black mare and let her go on. He followed her and asked the others to follow him.

The mare started neighing and looking for her foal and hit at once upon the right path, and after a while they reached the mouth of the cave. When the others saw that they had escaped an inevitable death through the cleverness of their brother in arms, they wanted to know how he came to discover this happy device. He feared that if he told the truth both he and his old father would lose their lives. But after they had promised him under oath that no harm would befall him, he spoke out firmly and told them that he had kept his father alive in the cellar and that his father had given him the advice about the mare when he went to take leave of him.

On hearing this they were astounded, and one of them exclaimed, "Our forefathers have not acted well in teaching us to kill the old men. They have gained experience and they can help our people by their advice when the strength of our arm fails."

The Old Man Who Solved Riddles


The custom in olden times was to take the old men to the mountain, where they were left to die of hunger or to be torn to pieces by wild beasts. This was done to prevent famine and starvation, and those children who did not do it were killed by the people.

A young man was taking his father to the mountain when he started to cry. The son took pity on him and took him home and locked him up in the cellar.

There came an order from the emperor to the villager to kill a she-bear which appeared above the village. The young man asked his father in the cellar what was the meaning of this order, and he answered, "It means the rock at the top of the hill."

The young man went to the assembly of the villagers and told them the answer to the emperor's order. They were to say, "We will kill the she-bear, and we will wait for the emperor to come and flay her."

On another occasion the emperor wanted them to bring him every kind of seed found in the neighborhood. The old man in the cellar told the young man to go to an anthill, there they would be sure to find them all.

When the young man again repeated this advice to the men in the village assembly, they were all surprised at his cleverness, and asked him to tell them who it was that had given him such advice, for they knew that he must have learned it from someone else.

He then told them what he had done. Since then they no longer kill the old men, because their wisdom is indispensable.

Killing of the Old Men


In olden times in some distant country the young folk had come together and decided to get rid of the old men. They did not want their wisdom and their advice, for they were just as clever. They had lived their lives, and that was an end of it.

Over that country there ruled a young king who gladly accepted the decision of the young people and gave strict orders that all the old men should be killed. The orders were carried out with the utmost severity. But there lived among these people a young man who had not the heart to kill his old father. Frightened at the consequences of disobeying the king's orders, he took his old father and hid him in the cellar under the house. There he fed him and looked after him, carefully visiting him only by night.

For a while things went well. The country was prosperous, the earth yielded its produce, vineyards flourished, and the orchards were laden with fruit. But things did not remain in that state of prosperity. A summer came. There was such drought that for months not a drop of rain fell. The crops were burnt off the face of the earth. The trees withered, and there was dearth and famine in the land. This was followed by a severe winter so cold as he people had never experienced in their life. Heavy snow fell and covered the fields. No food was left, nay not even seed for sowing the field in the springtime. Starvation had set in, and the people did not know what to do, for they saw death before their eyes, for themselves and for their starved cattle.

One night, when the son came as usual to his father, he could not bring more than a morsel of food. His father asked him what was the matter and why he looked so sad. The son told him what had happened. They had no seed to sow and did not know where to get any. There was nothing for them but rank starvation.

They were all at their wits' end and had nowhere to turn for counsel or advice how to save themselves, and the father said, "My son, fear not. Take a plow and plow up the road in front of the house and the adjoining road, and do not reply to any questions."

The son did as his father had bidden. The earth which had become moist and soft through the melting snow was easily plowed up, when lo! to their great amazement, when the time came all kinds of grains seemed to sprout and to grow up from the ground which had been tilled. Maize and corn and wheat were all growing up, and -- as the weather was favorable -- yielded a very good crop.

His neighbors were greatly astonished at what they saw, and went and told the king what had happened.

The king called the young man and said to him, "This doing is not of your own wisdom. No doubt your father has told you, whom you have kept alive. Speak the truth and I will spare your life."

The young man owned that his father had advised him to plow up the thoroughfares and roads close to their house. The young king then sent for the old man and asked him what was the meaning of his advice.

The old man replied, "All throughout the year carts laden with all manner of seeds and corn are passing to and fro. Some of the corn falls to the ground, and not a few of the seeds fall on the ground and are trodden into the earth by the passers-by. Left in that state they usually rot, but if the ground is plowed up, and is moist and favorable for the growth, no one passing over that part of the ground, some of the corn has a chance of growing. It is upon that chance that I relied, and thus it has come to pass that we have now a rich crop, not only for our necessities, but also to provide you all with enough necessary seed for your own fields in the future."

When the king and the young people heard what the old man had to tell and saw his deep wisdom, they recognized their folly, they rescinded that resolution, and decided henceforth to allow the old people to live in peace and honor.

And henceforth the old men are allowed to live to the end of their days.

Duck Under, Duck Under

Germany / Poland

Not too many years ago Gypsies would pass through Holstein and then set up their camp in the marshland near Kolmar [Chodzież]. According to legend they would drown their very old people who were no longer able to keep up with them and were only useless burdens. As they pushed them alive under the water they would chant this verse:

Duuk ünner, duuk ünner;
De Weld is di gramm.

Duck under, duck under;
The world is misery for you.

A Wendish Legend

Germany / Poland

During heathen times the Sorbian Wends of Lausitz practiced the shameful and gruesome custom of ridding themselves of their old people who were no longer able to contribute. A son would strike his own father dead when he became old and incompetent, or he would throw him into water, or he would push him over a high cliff. Indeed, there are many examples of this, even after the advent of Christianity.

For example: Herr Levin von Schulenburg, a high official in Altmark, was traveling among the Wends in about 1580 when he saw an old man being led away by several people. "Where are you going with the old man?" he asked, and received the answer, "To God!"

They were going to sacrifice him to God, because he was no longer able to earn his own sustenance. When the official grasped what was happening, he forced them to turn the old man over to him. He took him home with him and hired him as a gatekeeper, a position that he held for twenty additional years.

The Old Heathens


Told by an old man in Steinfurt

In olden times many heathens lived around here, and it is still told how they put to death old people who were over sixty years of age. They would chop them into many small pieces, which were then put into large jars. Then a little lamp was placed in each jar. They buried them in the earth. To this day such jars are frequently dug up.

Gillings Bluff


There's a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The drop's so great there's not a living creature could ever survive it. It's called Family Cliff simply because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens, and in this way our elders are allowed to die straight off without having to suffer any illnesses. And then they can go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care of them.

Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by the cliff, so there's no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with other misfortunes that might happen to us.

Kith-Rocks and Kith-Clubs


A violent death was deemed so pleasing to the gods, that it was not sought for in the field of battle only; "to gash oneself to Odin with the sword" was deemed better than to die of sickness or of old age.

Those who were advanced in years precipitated themselves from lofty cliffs, which thence received the appellation of kith-rocks, and so "fared to Valhalla."

Three such cliffs in West-Gothland and Bleking still bear the latter name, and to another the remarkable statement attaches, that the people, after dances and sports, threw themselves headlong from its top into the lake, as the ancients relate of the Hyperboreans and Scythians. [Plin. Hist. Nat. iv. 12]

Domestic legends even inform us, that if a man became bedridden and frail with age, his kinsmen would assemble and put him to death with a club, called a kith-club.

The Man with the Hatchet


In the Bargates, Leominster, are four small almshouses; these were founded by a widow named Hester Clark in 1736, and have been since rebuilt. Tradition says that the foundress spent all her money on these almshouses, and that she became in consequence so poor that she had to occupy one herself. That is why there is in the centre of the building a figure of a man, very quaint and rudely carved, holding an axe in his hand with these lines beneath:
He that gives away all before he is dead,
Let 'em take this hatchet and knock him on ye head.
The inscription on a stone on the front of the building contradicts the tradition, for it expressly states: "This Hospital was erected by Hester Clark and endowed at her death with 20 pounds per annum, to four decayed widows."

This is a good example of the way in which a rhyme and folk-tale of great antiquity are as it were brought up to date and started on a new lease of life by being associated with some local hero or person of note (see ante, Jack o' Kent).

Sir Laurence Gomme (Folklore as an Historical Science, 66-78), has collected a number of parallel stories to this. He concludes that the tale has come down to us from a savage time when the mallet (in this case a hatchet) was actually used for killing off the aged. At Osnabrück, in front of a house (but sometimes at the city gate, as in several of the cities of Silesia and Saxony), there hangs a mallet with this inscription:

Wer den kindern gibt das Brodt
And selber dabei leidet Noth,
Den schlagt mit dieser Kettle todt.
Which Mr. Thoms has Englished thus:
Who to his children gives his bread
And thereby himself suffers need,
With this mallet strike him dead.
(Gentleman's Magazine, 1850, 250-2)
Sir Laurence Gomme concludes that life of the folk-tale commenced when the use or formula of the mallet ceased to be a part of the social institutions.
The old customs which we have detailed as the true origin of the mallet and its hideous use in killing the aged and infirm had died out, but the symbol of them remained. To explain the symbol a myth was created, which kept sufficiently near to the original idea as to retain evidence of its close connection with the descent of property.
He goes on to give reasons for his belief that this story dates from a pre-Celtic period. It clearly takes us back to practices very remote from the reverence for the parents' authority, which might perhaps have been expected from descendants of the Aryan household. In most of the stories the father takes the place given to the charitable Hester Clark at Leominster.

An Irish Deathbed Scene


In the year of grace 1793, an aged peasant, whose cabin neighboured my then residence, lay in extremis, lovingly tended by his wife and daughter. The Christmas Eve was nearing its close, and they religiously believed that, should he pass away at its synchronism with the Christmas morning, he would escape purgatory, and directly enter paradise.

The church clock began to strike twelve. The wife took the bolster from under the dying man's head and pressed it down on his face; the daughter seated herself on his breast; and their purpose accomplished; no secret being made of the deed -- no wonder manifested -- no notice taken.

Was this murder? So far from possessing murder's primary condition -- malice -- it was done in all affection and piety. The husband and father could not survive another hour; a moment's quickened suffering would secure to him (so the simple women imagined) a painless eternity.

Can anybody tell me the origin of this superstition, which brings to one's mind the more gentle influence of Christmas Tide, as described in Hamlet?


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Revised December 19, 2019.