Stone Soup

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1548
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2008


  1. Boil Stones in Butter (English proverb).

  2. Stone Soup (Europe).

  3. The Clever Pilgrim (Switzerland/Germany).

  4. The Old Woman and the Tramp (Sweden).

  5. Limestone Broth (Ireland).

  6. Link to A Pot of Broth (A one-act play by W. B. Yeats).

  7. Stone Soup (United States of America).

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

Boil Stones in Butter

English Proverb

Boil stones in butter, and you may sip the broth.

Stone Soup


A tramp knocked at the farmhouse door. "I can't let you in, for my husband is not at home," said the woman of the house. "And I haven't a thing to offer you," she added. Her voice showed unmasked scorn for the man she held to be a beggar.

"Then you could make use of my soup stone," he replied, pulling from his pocket what appeared to be an ordinary stone.

"Soup stone?" said she, suddenly showing interest in the tattered stranger.

"Oh yes," he said. "If I just had a potful of water and a fire, I'd show you how it works. This stone and boiling water make the best soup you've ever eaten. Your husband would thank you for the good supper, if you'd just let me in and put my stone to use over your fire."

The woman's suspicions yielded to her desire for an easy meal, and she opened the door. A pot of water was soon brought to a boil. The tramp dropped in his stone, then tasted the watery gruel. "It needs salt, and a bit of barley," he said. "And some butter, too, if you can spare it." The woman obliged him by adding the requested ingredients. He tasted it again. "Much better!" he said. "But a good soup needs vegetables and potatoes. Are there none in your cellar?"

"Oh yes," she said, her enthusiasm for the miracle soup growing, and she quickly found a generous portion of potatoes, turnips, carrots, and beans.

After the mixture had boiled awhile, the man tasted it again. "It's almost soup," he said. "The stone has not failed us. But some chicken broth and chunks of meat would do it well."

The woman, recognizing the truth of his claim, ran to the chicken yard, returning soon with a freshly slaughtered fowl. "Soup stone, do your thing!" she said, adding the chicken to the stew.

When their noses told them that the soup was done, the woman dished up a healthy portion for her guest and for herself. They ate their fill, and -- thanks to the magic stone -- there was still a modest bowlful left over for her husband's supper.

"My thanks for the use of your pot and your fire," said the tramp as evening approached, and he sensed that the husband soon would be arriving home. He fished his stone from the bottom of the pot, licked it clean, and put it back into his pocket.

"Do come again," said the thankful woman.

"I will indeed," said the tramp, and disappeared into the woods.

The Clever Pilgrim


A number of years ago a tramp was making his way through the country. He claimed to be a pious pilgrim on his way from Paderborn to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

In Müllheim he asked at the Post Tavern, "How far is it to Jerusalem?"

He was told, "Seven hundred hours, but if you go by way of Mauchen, taking the footpath, then you will save a quarter of an hour."

So in order to save the quarter of an hour he went by way of Mauchen. And that was not a bad thing. If you don't take advantage of little benefits you will never get any large ones. We more often have the opportunity to save or to earn a Batzen [a small German coin] than a florin, but fifteen Batzen make one florin. And if someone on a journey of seven hundred hours could save a quarter of an hour every five hours, how much would he save during the whole trip? Who wants to figure it out?

In any event, none of this was very interesting to our disguised pilgrim. He was pursuing only leisure and good food, so he really did not care at all where he was. As the old proverb says, a beggar can never take a wrong turn. It would be a bad village indeed if he couldn't recover more there than what he used up on his soles getting there, even if were going barefoot.

But still, our pilgrim did want to get back on the high road as soon as possible, where there were wealthy houses and good cooking. This rascal, unlike a genuine pilgrim, was not interested in common nourishment extended to him by a pious and sympathetic hand, but wanted to eat nothing but nourishing pebble soup.

Whenever he came to a good tavern by the side of the road, for example the Posthaus in Krozingen, or the Baselstab in Schliengen, he would go inside and ask -- hungrily, humbly, and in God's name -- for some water soup with pebbles, adding that he had no money.

When the sympathetic waitress said to him, "Pious pilgrim, the pebbles are going to lie hard in your belly," he said, "Right! That's why I choose them. Pebbles last longer than bread, and it is a long way to Jerusalem. But if you could give me a little glass of wine with them, in God's name, then of course I could digest them more easily."

Then when the waitress said, "But, pious pilgrim, such a soup can surely give you no strength," he answered, "Indeed, if you would use meat broth instead of water it would of course be more nourishing."

When the waitress brought him such a soup, saying, "The sops haven't softened up yet," he said, "You are right, and the soup does seem to be quite thin. Wouldn't you have a few forkfuls of vegetables, or a little piece of meat, or both?"

Then when the sympathetic waitress put some vegetables and meat into the dish, he said, "God bless you. Now just give me some bread, and I'll eat the soup."

With that he pulled back the sleeves of his pilgrim's robe and attacked the work with pleasure. And when he had consumed the last crumb, strand, and drop, of the bread, wine, meat, vegetables, and meat broth, he said, "Waitress, your soup has filled me up so much that I can't eat the wonderful pebbles. That is too bad, but do save them. When I return I shall bring you a holy mussel from Askalon or a rose from Jericho."

The Old Woman and the Tramp


There was once a tramp, who went plodding his way through a forest. The distance between the houses was so great that he had little hope of finding a shelter before the night set in. But all of a sudden he saw some lights between the trees. He then discovered a cottage, where there was a fire burning on the hearth. "How nice it would be to roast one's self before that fire, and to get a bite of something," he thought; and so he dragged himself towards the cottage.

Just then an old woman came towards him.

"Good evening, and well met!" said the tramp.

"Good evening," said the woman. "Where do you come from?"

"South of the sun, and east of the moon," said the tramp, "and now I am on the way home again, for I have been all over the world with the exception of this parish," he said.

"You must be a great traveler, then," said the woman. "What may be your business here?"

"Oh, I want a shelter for the night," he said.

"I thought as much," said the woman; "but you may as well get away from here at once, for my husband is not at home, and my place is not an inn," she said.

"My good woman," said the tramp, "you must not be so cross and hardhearted, for we are both human beings, and should help one another, it is written."

"Help one another?" said the woman. "Help? Did you ever hear such a thing? Who'll help me, do you think? I haven't got a morsel in the house! No, you'll have to look for quarters elsewhere," she said.

But the tramp was like the rest of his kind. He did not consider himself beaten at the first rebuff. Although the old woman grumbled and complained as much as she could, he was just as persistent as ever, and went on begging and praying like a starved dog, until at last she gave in, and he got permission to lie on the floor for the night.

That was very kind, he thought, and he thanked her for it.

"Better on the floor without sleep, than suffer cold in the forest deep," he said, for he was a merry fellow, this tramp, and was always ready with a rhyme.

When he came into the room he could see that the woman was not so badly off as she had pretended. But she was a greedy and stingy woman of the worst sort, and was always complaining and grumbling.

He now made himself very agreeable, of course, and asked her in his most insinuating manner for something to eat.

"Where am I to get it from?" said the woman. "I haven't tasted a morsel myself the whole day."

But the tramp was a cunning fellow, he was. "Poor old granny, you must be starving," he said, "Well, well, I suppose I shall have to ask you to have something with me, then."

"Have something with you!" said the woman. "You don't look as if you could ask anyone to have anything! What have you got to offer one, I should like to know?"

"He who far and wide does roam sees many things not known at home; and he who many things has seen has wits about him and senses keen," said the tramp. "Better dead than lose one's head! Lend me a pot, granny!"

The old woman now became very inquisitive, as you may guess, and so she let him have a pot. He filled it with water and put it on the fire, and then he blew with all his might till the fire was burning fiercely all round it Then he took a four-inch nail from his pocket, turned it three times in his hand and put it into the pot.

The woman stared with all her might. "What's this going to be?" she asked.

"Nail broth," said the tramp.

The old woman had seen and heard a good deal in her time, but that anybody could have made broth with a nail, well, she had never heard the like before.

"That's something for poor people to know," she said, "and I should like to learn how to make it."

"That which is not worth having, will always go a-begging," said the tramp.

But if she wanted to learn how to make it she had only to watch him, he said, and went on stirring the broth. The old woman squatted on the ground, her hands clasping her knees, and her eyes following his hand as he stirred the broth.

"This generally makes good broth," he said, "but this time it will very likely be rather thin, for I have been making broth the whole week with the same nail. If one only had a handful of sifted oatmeal to put in, that would make it all right," he said. "But what one has to go without, it's no use thinking more about," and so he stirred the broth again.

"Well, I think I have a scrap of flour somewhere," said the old woman, and went out to fetch some, and it was both good and fine. The tramp began putting the flour into the broth, and went on stirring, while the woman sat staring now at him and then at the pot until her eyes nearly burst their sockets.

"This broth would be good enough for company," he said, putting in one handful of flour after another. "If I had only a bit of salted beef and a few potatoes to put in, it would be fit for gentlefolks, however particular they might be," he said. "But what one has to go without, it's no use thinking more about."

When the old woman really began to think it over, she thought she had some potatoes, and perhaps a bit of beef as well, and these she gave the tramp, who went on stirring, while she sat and stared as hard as ever.

"This will be grand enough for the best in the land," he said.

"Well, I never!" said the woman, "and just fancy -- all with a nail!" He was really a wonderful man, that tramp! He could do more than drink a sup and turn the tankard up, he could.

"If one had only a little barley and a drop of milk, we could ask the king himself to have some of it," he said, "for this is what he has every blessed evening -- that I know, for I have been in service under the king's cook" he said.

"Dear me! Ask the king to have some! Well, I never!" exclaimed the woman, slapping her knees. She was quite awestruck at the tramp and his grand connections.

"But what one has to go without, it's no use thinking more about."

And then she remembered she had a little barley; and as for milk, well, she wasn't quite out of that, she said, for her best cow had just calved. And then she went to fetch both the one and the other.

The tramp went on stirring, and the woman sat staring, one moment at him and the next at the pot.

Then all at once the tramp took out the nail. "Now it's ready, and now we'll have a real good feast," he said. "But to this kind of soup the king and the queen always take a dram or two, and one sandwich at least. And then they always have a cloth on the table when they eat," he said. "But what one has to go without, it's no use thinking more about."

But by this time the old woman herself had begun to feel quite grand and fine, I can tell you. And if that was all that was wanted to make it just as the king had it, she thought it would be nice to have it just the same way for once, and play at being king and queen with the tramp. She went straight to a cupboard and brought out the brandy bottle, dram glasses, butter and cheese, smoked beef and veal, until at last the table looked as if it were decked out for company.

Never in her life had the old woman had such a grand feast, and never had she tasted such broth, and just fancy, made only with a nail! She was in such a good and merry humor at having learnt such an economical way of making broth that she did not know how to make enough of the tramp who had taught her such a useful thing. So they ate and drank, and drank and ate, until they become both tired and sleepy.

The tramp was now going to lie down on the floor. But that would never do, thought the old woman. No, that was impossible. "Such a grand person must have a bed to lie in," she said.

He did not need much pressing. "It's just like the sweet Christmastime," he said, "and a nicer woman I never came across. Ah, well! Happy are they who meet with such good people," said he, and he lay down on the bed and went asleep.

And next morning when he woke, the first thing he got was coffee and a dram. When he was going, the old woman gave him a bright dollar piece. "And thanks, many thanks, for what you have taught me," she said. "Now I shall live in comfort, since I have learnt how to make broth with a nail."

"Well it isn't very difficult, if one only has something good to add to it," said the tramp as he went on his way.

The woman stood at the door staring after him. "Such people don't grow on every bush," she said.

Limestone Broth


The making of "limestone broth" was a device employed by wandering beggars to secure a good supper without seeming to ask for it. The beggar, making his way into one of the cabins which had always their doors hospitably open for poor vagrants would ask the vanithee (or woman of the house) to lend him a small pot, and allow him to cook his supper upon her fire. Permission was, of course, granted, and the pot was produced.

He then took from his wallet two substantial pieces of freshly cut limestone, which he placed in the pot, and, covering them with water, put the pot upon the fire to boil.

The vanithee, looking on with interest, exclaimed, "What are yez goin' to make, me good man?"

"Limestone broth, ma'am," replied the beggar.

"Glory be to God, look at that now!" exclaimed the amazed housewife. When the boiling had proceeded for some time the beggar-man tasted the contents, and remarked "it would be grately improved by a pinch o' salt."

The "pinch o' salt " was given him, and by-and-by he suggested that all the "broth" wanted was just a couple of spoonfuls of "male" to thicken it. Next came a request for a few slices of turnips, potatoes, and onions, to give it a little substance, all of which the good woman, who continued watching the proceedings with the keenest interest, kindly supplied; nor did she refuse "a knuckle of bacon," just to give the broth "the laste taste in the world of the flavour of mate."

And when, at the conclusion of the operation, she was invited to try the "limestone broth," she pronounced it "quite as good as any mate broth she ever tasted in her life."

Stone Soup

United States of America

There lived not far from Gordonsville [Virginia] a widow who was noted for her niggardliness and extreme parsimony; so stingy and mean was she that a placard was nailed on her gate, under her own direction, with the inscription: "No soldier fed or housed here."

The best foragers of the brigade met their match in the old woman, and returned defeated from the field; at last she was left in undisturbed possession of the place, and no hungry soldiers were ever fed at her table.

But one day a famished-looking, lank, angular specimen of the genus Reb appeared at her farmhouse and knocked at her door. When the animated figure of War and Famine combined stalked into her yard, the old lady was speechless with wrath; she opened the door, prepared for immediate hostilities, but the sad-faced defender of the soil was asking in a humble voice and with a deprecatory manner, "Please, marm, lend me your iron pot."

"Man, I have no iron pot for you!" This was snappily jerked out, while an evident determination was shown to shut the door in his face.

"Please, marm, I won't hurt it."

"You do not suppose," she began in angry tones, "you do not for one moment suppose I am going to lend you my pot to carry to camp, do you? If I were fool enough, I would never see it again, so don't think that you are going to get it. Go over there to Mrs. Hanger's, she will lend you hers; one thing is certain, I won't!"

"Marm," he still pleaded, "I will bring your pot back, hope I may die if I don't! If you don't believe me I won't take it out of the yard but will kindle a fire just here; please, marm."

"What do you want with it?" asked the old woman, who was beginning to feel that she would be none the worse in pocket by granting the request, but might, on the contrary, be gainer in some way.

"I want to bile some stone soup," answered the soldier, looking pitifully at his questioner.

"Stone soup! What's stone soup?" and the old lady's curiosity began to rise. "How do you make it, and what for?"

"Marm," replied the mournful infantryman, "ever since the war began the rations have become scarcer and scarcer, until now they have stopped entirely and we-uns have to live on stone soup to keep from starving."

"Stone soup," mused the woman, "I never heard of it before, must be something new; one of these newfangled things; cheap, too; well, how do you say you make it ?"

"Please, marm, you get a pot with some water and I will show you; we biles the stone."

The ancient dame trotted off full of wonder and inquisitiveness to get the article. Yes, it was worth knowing the recipe; fully worth the use of the pot, besides she would make her dinner off that soup and save that much! So, very much mollified, she returned and found the soldier had already kindled his fire; placing the kettle over it he waited for the water to boil, in the meanwhile selecting a rock about the size of his head, which he washed clean and put in the pot; then he said to the old woman, who had been peering into the pot through her spectacles, "Marm, please give me a leetle piece of bacon about the size of your hand to give the soup a relish."

The old lady trotted off and got it for him; another five minutes passed.

"Is it done?" she inquired.

"It's mos' done, but please, marm, give me half a head o' cabbage just to make it taste right."

Without a word the cabbage was brought; and ten minutes slipped away.

"Is it not done by this time?" again she asked.

"Mos' done," with a brightening look, and then as if a new idea had just occurred to him, "Please, marm, can't you give me a half a dozen potatoes just to give it a nice flavor like."

"All right," answered the widow, who by this time had become deeply absorbed in the operation. The potatoes followed the meat and cabbage, and another ten minutes followed that.

"Isn't it done yet? 'Pears to me that it's a long time cooking," she said, getting somewhat impatient.

"Mos' done, marm, mos' done," insinuatingly.

"Jest get me a small handful of flour, a little pepper and some termartusses and it will be all right then."

The things were duly added from the widow's stores and bubbled in the pot a while; then the soup was pronounced done and lifted from the fire. The soldier pulled out his knife with spoon attachment and commenced to eat; he lost no time between mouthfuls; the economical widow hastened in, and returned with a plate, which she filled; on tasting the first spoonful she exclaimed, "Why, man, this is nothing but common meat and vegetable soup!"

"So it is, marm," responded the soldier after a while, for there was not a minute to spare for talking; "so it is, marm, but we call it stone soup."

The old lady carried the pot back into the house, but not before the man had emptied it, learning for the first time how a soldier's ingenuity could compass anything and outwit even herself. She said, "They have Old Nick on their side," and tradition adds, she even kept that stone and swore by it.

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Revised November 15, 2008.