Monday, July 27, 2015

The Wise Merchant: An Elder Tale

Photo by Chrissy H.
This story with Jewish roots is part of a series about elder tales.

In an elder tale, an older adult serves as the protagonist of the story rather than a minor character.

Elder tales give older adults the focus or the "starring roles," making these characters more rich, complex and nuanced than the stock character "little old man/lady" allows.

The source for this tale comes from Allan B. Chinen's collection In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life. Willmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 1989. Chinen cites his source as G. Friedlander's The Jewish Fairy Book. New York: Stokes, 1920.   I could not find a separate source for this tale.

Here is my retelling of "The Wise Merchant":

Once upon a time, an older merchant and his grown son set out on a journey to sell a lifetime of wealth that the father had accumulated in the form of jewels. They placed the jewels in a chest and told no one about these valuables or the true purpose for their trip.

Photo by VAnatolia.
Father and son secured passage on a ship headed to a large town where they could find a buyer to give them a good price for the jewels.

As they sailed on the ship, the older man and his son overheard the sailors on the deck whispering to each other about the chest.

From hearing snippets of the sailors' conversation, the older man and his son began to realize that their lives where in danger.

The younger man said, "Father, we should fight these greedy men to save the jewels--and our lives."  The older man responded, "No, we are outnumbered. These pirates will overpower us."

The merchant and his son returned to their cabin to check on the chest. The older man paced back and forth in the small distance of their cabin while his son sat on the chest.

Photo by als3N.
A short time later, the sailors on deck turned to see the older man pushed open the doors to the deck, dragging the chest and yelling back to his son, "You are such a worthless son.  You never listen to anything I say."

The son appeared at the doorway and yelled out to his father, "Why should I listen? You never have anything of value to say. You are an old fool!"

The older man moved with intent to the side of the ship and hoisted the heavy chest to the railing.

With such a spectacle unfolding before them, the pirates were stunned into silence.  The merchant then opened the chest for all to see the abundance of jewels inside.

The son was still standing in the doorway as the father yelled back to him, "There's no way I'm going to bestow my wealth to you! I'd rather live in poverty than allow you any portion of my life's work to you!"

And before anyone could stop him, the old merchant pushed the chest and its contents into the sea.

Once the older man and his son returned to their cabin, the younger man said, "I see that your plan was better than mine.  The greedy sailors will leave us in peace now."

Photo by Levi.
After the ship docked at their destination, the merchant quickly guided his son to the local magistrate's office where they filed charges of piracy and conspiracy to murder against the greedy sailors.

Arrested and bound, the sailors where brought before the judge, who asked, "Did you steal this man's chest of jewels?

The sailors protested, "No! The old merchant threw the jewels overboard himself. We all saw him do this--as did his son. You arrested us while we were still on our ship. Search us and the ship, you will not find the jewels!"

The judge replied, "Well, no man would do something that foolish unless he feared for his life."

The greedy sailors saw that they were headed for jail or worse, so they struck a bargain with the judge.  "If we give this man and his son wealth equal to the lost jewels, will you overturn the charges?"   And the judge agreed.

Things to think about

I love how the father found a way to solve this problem with brains when the son's first impulse was to use brawn.  The older man's treasure wasn't so much conveyed in the jewels he possessed, but in the lifetime of hard-won wisdom that he accumulated.

The wise merchant was able to correctly read the situation, assess his options, and use what he know about human nature to save his life and save his son's life.

The story could have ended there. However, the merchant also knew that he could persuade a judge to find evidence enough to arrest the greedy sailors who then restored the man's wealth.

The wealth, of course, serves as a metaphor.

People can have the benefits of age that are more intangible than jewels but powerful nonetheless.   Older adults can negotiate through difficult situations using their wisdom.

By modeling wise and mature behavior, older adults teach their grown children (and grandchildren) how to survive and thrive in a future where the most mature members of society will not always be physically present.

What is the single most profound insight of this elder tale for me?  It's acknowledging that pirates cannot steal and the sea cannot swallow the wisdom that older adults have to offer us.

If we show our children and grandchildren how we look up to our own elders, we increase the probability that they will inherent our wisdom.


The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale from Croatia
Kitchen Wisdom: An Elder Tale from Japan
The Old Alchemist: An Elder Tale from Burma


  1. This is beautiful. And I have absolutely nothing else to add to that – – and the fact I'm sending it to a number of friends.

    1. It's such a powerful story. I am glad that it resonated with you. Have a lovely week, Carla.

  2. The lesson here could be a companion piece to my blog post today, in some ways. When young people are not given wisdom by the adults in their lives, well, it can end badly. Thank you for this today.

    1. Ah, good point about the dangers of grown ups who lack wisdom. It's so tragic when poor choices made by some affect others. May we all work to support people in our daily path and then pray for the divine force to make up for neglect and to help stop abuse.