Fools Cannot
Count Themselves

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1287
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1999-2011


  1. The Twelve Men of Gotham (England).

  2. The Five Traveling Journeymen (Germany).

  3. The Seven Wise Men of Buneyr (Pakistan).

  4. The Lost Peasant (Kashmir).

  5. How the Kadambawa Men Counted Themselves (Sri Lanka).

  6. Links to related sites.

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

The Twelve Men of Gotham


On a certain day there were twelve men of Gotham that went to fish, and some stood on dry land; and in going home one said to the other, "We have ventured wonderfully in wading. I pray God that none of us come home and be drowned."

"Nay, marry," said one to the other, "let us see that; for there did twelve of us come out." Then they counted themselves, and every one counted eleven.

Said one to the other, "There is one of us drowned." They went back to the brook where they had been fishing, and sought up and down for him that was wanting, making great lamentation. A courtier, coming by, asked what it was they sought for, and why they were sorrowful.

"Oh," said they, "this day we went to fish in the brook; twelve of us came out together, and one is drowned."

Said the courtier, "Count how many there be of you."

One of them said, "Eleven," and he did not count himself.

"Well," said the courtier, "what will you give me, and I will find the twelfth man?"

"Sir," said they, "all the money we have got."

"Give me the money," said the courtier, and began with the first, and gave him a stroke over the shoulders with his whip, which made him groan, saying, "Here is one," and so served them all, and they all groaned at the matter. When he came to the last, he paid him well, saying, "Here is the twelfth man."

"God's blessing on your heart," said they, "for thus finding our dear brother!"

The Five Traveling Journeymen

Germany (Swabia)

Five journeymen once left a particular place to travel together, and they promised one another that they would all stay together. After walking a good distance, one of them suddenly wondered if they were still all there, and so he asked his comrades. They all stood still, and one of them began counting, "Here am I, one, two, three, four!"

"Gracious! How concerned they were when one of them turned up missing!" One after the other each one counted, and the result was always four, because everyone missed himself.

Then a stranger came by and asked what the trouble was. They told him and asked if he could help. The man told them all to press their noses into the mud and then count the holes. This they did, and when they saw that five noses were there, they knew that they had not lost one of their comrades, and they happily continued their journey.

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."

The Lost Peasant


Ten peasants were standing on the side of the road weeping. They thought that one of their number had been lost on the way, as each man had counted the company and found them nine only.

"Ho, you! What is the matter?" asked a townsman passing by.

"Oh, sir," said the peasants, "we were ten men when we left the village, but now we are only nine."

The townsman saw at a glance what fools they were. Each of them had omitted to count himself in the number. He therefore told them to take off their topís [skull caps] and place them on the ground. This they did, and counted ten of them, whereupon they supposed they were all there, and were comforted. But they could not tell how it was.

How the Kadambawa Men Counted Themselves

Sri Lanka

Twelve Kadambawa men cut fence sticks, tied them into twelve bundles, then set them upright and leaned them together. Then one of the men said, "Are our men all here? We must count and see."

So a man counted them, but he counted only eleven men, omitting himself. "There are only eleven men, but there are twelve bundles of fence sticks," he said.

Then another man said, "Maybe you have made a mistake," and counted them again in the same way. "There are eleven men and twelve bundles of fence sticks. There is a man missing," they said, and they went into the jungle to look for him.

While they were in the jungle looking, a man from another village heard them shouting. He came to them and asked why they were shouting.

The men said, "Twelve of our men came to cut fence sticks. There are twelve bundles of sticks but only eleven men. One man is missing."

This man saw that there were twelve men, so he said, "Let each of you pick up your own bundle of fence sticks."

So each of the twelve men picked up his own bundle of sticks, and thus they all returned to their village.


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

Revised May 20, 2011.