Ungrateful Heirs

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 982
about old people who trick their
ungrateful children into caring for them

translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2020


  1. How the Wicked Sons Were Duped (Kashmir).

  2. A Clever Stratagem (Sri Lanka).

  3. How the Daughter-in-Law Got the Coins (Sri Lanka).

  4. Old Mr. Lacy and His Three Sons (England).

  5. The Borrowed Guilder (Germany, Martin Luther).

  6. No Father Should Transfer All His Property to His Children While He Is Still Alive (Germany, Martin Luther).

  7. The Cudgel (Germany).

  8. The Cudgel on the Gate at Jüterbog (Germany).

  9. Grandfather's Bag of Gold (Scotland).

  10. John Bell (Scotland).

  11. Links to related sites.

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

How the Wicked Sons Were Duped


A very wealthy old man, imagining that he was on the point of death, sent for his sons and divided his property among them. However, he did not die for several years afterwards; and miserable years many of them were. Besides the weariness of old age, the old fellow had to bear with much abuse and cruelty from his sons. Wretched, selfish ingrates! Previously they vied with one another in trying to please their father, hoping thus to receive more money, but now they had received their patrimony, they cared not how soon he left them -- nay, the sooner the better, because he was only a needless trouble and expense. This, as we may suppose, was a great grief to the old man.

One day he met a friend and related to him all his troubles. The friend sympathized very much with him, and promised to think over the matter, and call in a little while and tell him what to do. He did so; in a few days he visited the old man and put down four bags full of stones and gravel before him.

"Look here, friend," said he. "Your sons will get to know of my coming here today, and will inquire about it. You must pretend that I came to discharge a long-standing debt with you, and that you are several thousands of rupees richer than you thought you were. Keep these bags in your own hands, and on no account let your sons get to them as long as you are alive. You will soon find them change their conduct towards you. Salám. I will come again soon to see how you are getting on."

When the young men got to hear of this further increase of wealth they began to be more attentive and pleasing to their father than ever before. And thus they continued to the day of the old man's demise, when the bags were greedily opened, and found to contain only stones and gravel!

A Clever Stratagem

Sri Lanka

Once upon a time there lived a widowed mother, who had a son and daughter to support her. In course of time the children married and were well settled in life. The old woman, thus left alone, being unable to maintain herself, resolved to live under her son's roof. Naturally enough, the son treated her with respect and kindness, but her daughter-in-law, who had a tongue which might goad a man to fury, seized every opportunity of ill-treating her. At every turn she would give her a sound scolding, and often ordered her out of doors.

Small wonder was it, then, that the mother, unable to bear the severity of her son's wife, made up her mind to quit his house for her daughter's. When the son heard this, though cut to the quick, he was at a loss as to what he should do to remedy matters, for he was a hen-pecked husband.

That night sleep fled from his eyes, and, as he lay awake pondering over this unfortunate state of affairs, a beautiful idea struck him, and he was anxiously waiting till it dawned to carry it out.

Early in the morning, while his wife was yet sleeping, he called his mother aside, and giving her a bag bade her fill it with stones and when parting to make much ado and carry it away with her, pretending the while there was something valuable in it. When the time came she, with sufficient tact, wished them all manner of good and together with her bag full of treasures, wended her way to her daughter's abode.

Scarce had she gone a few yards, when the son rated his wife soundly, and opened her eyes to her folly in allowing his mother to depart for, said he, "You saw ber carrying away that bag of gold, and now she would leave it all to my sister, and we would be such losers by it."

When the wife heard this, her sorrow and mortification know no bounds, and she resolved to bring the old woman home at any cost. So, on the morrow, she prepared some rice-cakes and other sweetmeats and, with all possible haste, she went to her whom she had so cruelly driven away and with artful language coaxed her back. For, had she not a bag full of glittering gold!

Ever afterwards she swallowed her wrath in silence and treated her with kind concern, attending to all her wants.

One evening, the old woman took seriously ill, and the daughter-in-law, finding she was breathing her last, and her husband had run in search of medicine -- so great was her avarice and eagerness to get at the treasures ere his return -- rushed into an inner chamber and in the deep recesses of a wooden box found -- horror of horrors! -- the bag filled not with gold but with stones. Angry with herself, and angry with the man who had deceived her, she went out into the verandah of her house with her crying infant in her arms.

After a while the poor woman expired and the neighbors had come to make preparations for the funeral. Seeing her mother also hurrying up and not wishing to outrage the feelings of those assembled by an open recital of the stratagem her husband had practised on her, and yet being impatient to acquaint her mother of it -- for she, too, was in the secret about the bag of gold -- she hushed the little one to sleep by chanting a nursery rhyme and artfully introducing into it the following line:

Mother, the wretch, who gave the villain birth,
Had but a bag of stones as hers on earth!

How the Daughter-in-Law Got the Coins

Sri Lanka

In a certain city there was a nobleman. He had been very wealthy, but his goods were destroyed, and he became indigent, and in this condition he died.

When his son came of full age, the mother said to him, "Son, I am now approaching old age, but you are unable to provide for me by yourself. Therefore you must take in marriage a woman from a suitable family."

He married, but his wife did not exert herself for his mother. To counter this, the husband collected fragments of broken plates from the whole village. These he put in a bag made of skin. Then he said, "When you come near that woman, my wife, take this bag from its box as though there were great wealth in it, shake it, then put it away again."

The mother took her son's words to heart. She shook the skin bag as he had told her to, so as to be noticed by his wife, and then carefully replaced it in the box. From that day on the son's wife began to exert herself for her mother-in-law. During this time leprosy attacked the mother-in-law.

The son said, "Mother, place the skin bag near the place where you sleep, then say to your relatives and to my wife, 'I have saved the articles in this bag from the time I was very little until now, and for the sole purpose of giving them, at the end of my life, to a person who has most exerted herself for me.'"

Then the mother gathered together her relatives and her daughter-in-law, and said to them what her son had proposed, that she would give the bag of coins to the person who most exerted herself for her. After this each one of them attended the leprous woman, and the son's mind was put at ease. A little later the leprous woman died.

The son's wife stole the bag of coins and hid it. After the corpse was buried, the son's wife took out the bag of coins. Upon discovering that it contained only fragments of broken plates she was greatly saddened.

At this time that woman's mother also arrived, and she noisily asked, "Did my daughter receive the bag of coins?" Her daughter told her that she had been cheated. She showed her the bag of plate fragments, and they both wept. That woman, now angry with her husband, separated from him, and returned to her own house.

Old Mr. Lacy and His Three Sons


They have a tradition at Winterton that there was formerly one Mr. Lacy, that lived there and was a very rich man, who, being grown very aged, gave all that he had away unto his three sons, upon condition that one should keep him one week, and another another.

But it happened within a little while that they were all weary of him, after that they had got what they had, and regarded him no more than a dog.

The old man perceiving how he was slighted, went to an attorney to see if his skill could not afford him any help in his troubles. The attorney told him that no law in the land could help him nor yield him any comfort, but there was one thing only which would certainly do, which, if he would perform, he would reveal to him. At this the poor old man was exceeding glad, and desired him for God's sake to reveal the same, for he was almost pined and starved to death, and he would willingly do it rather than live as he did.

"Well," says the lawyer, "you have been a great friend of mine in my need, and I will now be one to you in your need. I will lend you a strongbox with a strong lock on it, in which shall be contained 1000 pounds. You shall on such a day pretend to have fetched it out of a closet, where it shall be supposed that you had hidden it, and carry it into one of your son's houses, and make it your business every week, while you are sojourning with such or such a son, to be always counting of the money, and rattling it about, and you shall see that, for love of it, they'll soon love you again, and make very much of you, and maintain you joyfully, willingly, and plentifully, unto your dying day."

The old man, having thanked the lawyer for this good advice and kind proffer, received within a few days the aforesaid box full of money, and having so managed it as above, his graceless sons soon fell in love with him again, and made mighty much of him, and perceiving that their love to him continued steadfast and firm, he one day took it out of the house and carried it to the lawyer, thanking him exceedingly for the loan thereof. But when he got to his sons he made them believe that he had hidden it again, and that he would give it to him of them whom he loved best when he died. This made them all so observant of him that he lived the rest of his days in great peace, plenty, and happiness amongst them, and died full of years.

But a while before he died, he upbraided them for their former ingratitude, told them the whole history of the box, and forgave them.

The Borrowed Guilder

Martin Luther, Table Talk

A father, now aged, had given over all his property to his children, with the understanding that they would care for him as long as he lived. But they were thankless and soon grew tired of him. Considering him a nuisance, they gave him but little to eat.

The father, who was an intelligent man, locked himself in a room, and as though he were counting out a large sum of money, made a ringing sound with some guilder that his neighbor had lent him. The children heard this and thereafter treated him with honor, hoping that he would leave this money to them.

He returned the borrowed coins to his neighbor.

When he died the children discovered that they had been deceived.

No Father Should Transfer All His Property to His Children While He Is Still Alive

Martin Luther, Table Talk

A certain man complained to Dr. Martin Luther about his misery. He had provided generously for his children, indeed, he had transferred all of his property over to them, but now, in his old age, they had abandoned him.

The doctor replied:

Jesus Sirach [Ben Sira] gives parents the best advice when he says: "Do not give everything away while you are still alive, for then your children will not be faithful to you."

As the proverb states: "One father can care for ten children, but ten children cannot care for one father."

For this reason in times past there were many sermons about a children's thanklessness. Their father made made his last will and testament, then locked it into a chest together with a club and a slip of paper. On the slip of paper were these words:

Welcher Vater das Seine gibet aus der Gewalt,
Den soll man todtschlagen mit der Keule bald.

A father who gives all away before he's dead
Should be dispatched with a blow to his head.

The Cudgel


A wealthy man had three daughters. He gave them marriage dowries and provided for their every need, but then he lived too long for them. They begged him to deed his property to them, promising that in return they would care for him the rest of his life. They would provide him with his own room and give him the best things to eat and drink.

So the father deeded his property to them, and during the first year all went well. But the next year, when he spent more time with the one daughter than with the others, she said to him, "Father, you are a burden to me. Go to the others; they received just as much from you as I did."

The good father could now see very well that he was no longer wanted, and asked a neighbor for advice. The neighbor gave him an old chest filled with sand and stones. The father had the chest carried to where he was staying, then asked his daughter to lend him a scoop and three candles, for he had something that he wanted to measure. He sat up half the night making a clinging sound as if it were gold coins. The next morning he gave the scoop back to the daughter, leaving one old Bohemian coin in it.

She said, "Father, you were clinging in the night as if you were measuring gold coins. I heard it."

He said, "I set aside some money for myself in a chest, and I am going to leave it to the one of you who is the most friendly toward me."

Hearing this, all three wanted to have him, and each one tried to outdo the others in caring for him.

When his time finally came to die, they went to the chest and discovered that it was filled with sand and stones, together with a cudgel, upon which was written, in the English language: "Be it known to all the world that anyone should be beaten with this cudgel who gives so much to his children that he himself suffers want."

The Cudgel on the Gate at Jüterbog


In Jüterbog a wooden cudgel, several feet in length, hangs from town gate. Beneath it is fastened a tablet upon which is written the following:

Wer seinen Kindern gibt das Brot
Und leidet nachher selber Not,
Den schlag' man mit dieser Keule tot.

He who gives his children bread
And afterwards himself suffers need,
With this cudgel shall be struck dead.

About this it is told that there was once a rich man who had three sons. During his lifetime he gave them all his wealth, but afterward he himself suffered need, for not one of his children would support him.

After he died, his children quickly appeared at court to see if there was not something else for them to inherit, but they found nothing but a large, heavy chest. Opening it, they found that it was filled with stones, beneath which were the cudgel, the tablet, and instructions that both should be hung from the town gate. And so it was done.

Grandfather's Bag of Gold


There was a man at some time or other who was well off, and had many children. When the family grew up the man gave a well-stocked farm to each of his children. When the man was old his wife died, and he divided all that he had amongst his children, and lived with them, turn about, in their houses. The sons and daughters got tired of him and ungrateful, and tried to get rid of him when he came to stay with them.

At last an old friend found him sitting tearful by the wayside, and learning the cause of his distress, took him home; there he gave him a bowl of gold and a lesson which the old man learned and acted.

When all the ungrateful sons and daughters had gone to a preaching, the old man went to a green knoll where his grandchildren were at play, and pretending to hide, he turned up a flat hearthstone in an old stance [standing-place], and went out of sight.

He spread out his gold on a big stone in the sunlight, and he muttered, "Ye are mouldy, ye are hoary, ye will be better for the sun."

The grandchildren came sneaking over the knoll, and when they had seen and heard all that they were in tended to see and hear, they came running up with, "Grandfather, what have you got there?"

"That which concerns you not; touch it not," said the grandfather; and he swept his gold into a bag and took it home to his old friend.

The grandchildren told what they had seen, and henceforth the children strove who should be kindest to the old grandfather.

Still acting on the counsel of his sagacious old chum, he got a stout little black chest made, and carried it always with him.

When any one questioned him as to its contents, his answer was, "That will be known when the chest is opened."

When he died he was buried with great honour and ceremony, and then the chest was opened by the expectant heirs. In it were found broken potsherds and bits of slate, and a long-handled, white wooden mallet with this legend on its head:

So am favioche fiorum,
Thabhavit gnoc annsa cheann,
Do n'f hear nach gleidh maoin da' fein,
Ach bheir a chuid go leir d'a chlann.

Here is the fair mall
To give a knock on the skull
To the man who keeps no gear for himself,
But gives all to his bairns.

John Bell


He that gives all his geer to his bairns,
Take up a beetle, and known out his harns [brains].
Taken from the history of one John Bell, who having given his whole substance to his children, was by them neglected; after he died there was found in his chest a mallet with this inscription:
I John Bell, leaves here a mell [maul], the man to fell,
Who gives all to his bairns, and keeps nothing to himself.
He that gives his goods before he be dead,
Take up a mallet and knock him on the head.

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Revised March 13, 2020.