The Bird's Three Precepts

folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 150
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2000


  1. Of Hearing Good Counsel (Gesta Romanorum).

  2. The Three Proverbs (Poland).

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

Of Hearing Good Counsel

Gesta Romanorum

An archer, catching a little bird called a nightingale, was about to put her to death. But, being gifted with language, she said to him, "What will it advantage you to kill me? I cannot satisfy your appetite. Let me go, and I will give you three rules, from which you will derive great benefit, if you follow them accurately."

Astonished at hearing the bird speak, he promised her liberty on the conditions she had stated.

"Hear, then," said she. "Never attempt impossibilities. Secondly, do not lament an irrecoverable loss. Thirdly, do not credit things that are incredible. If you keep these three maxims with wisdom, they will infinitely profit you."

The man, faithful to his promise, let the bird escape. Winging her flight through the air, she commenced a most exquisite song, and, having finished, said to the archer, "You are a silly fellow, and have today lost a great treasure. There is in my bowels a pearl bigger than the egg of an ostrich."

Full of vexation at her escape, he immediately spread his nets and endeavored to take her a second time, but she eluded his art.

"Come into my house, sweet bird," said he, "and I will show you every kindness. I will feed you with my own hands, and permit you to fly abroad at pleasure."

The nightingale answered, "Now I am certain you are a fool, and pay no regard to the counsel I gave you: 'Regret not what is irrecoverable.' You cannot take me again, yet you have spread your snares for that purpose. Moreover, you believe that my bowels contain a pearl larger than the egg of an ostrich, when I myself am nothing near that size! You are a fool, and a fool you will always remain."

With this consolatory assurance she flew away. The man returned sorrowfully to his own house, but never again obtained a sight of the nightingale.


My beloved, the archer is any Christian. The nightingale is Christ, and man attempts to kill him as often as he sins.

The Three Proverbs


A rich man was once walking about in his garden. He was cheerful and happy. Suddenly he noticed a small bird that had been captured in a small net. He took hold of it and was more than a little surprised when it began to speak, saying, "Give me my freedom, dear man! Of what use is it to you to lock me in a cage? Looking at me will not please you, for I do not have beautiful feathers. I cannot entertain you, for I do not sing like other birds. And I cannot provide you with nourishment. I am much too small for that. But I will tell you three wise teachings if you will give my freedom."

The master of the garden looked at the little creature and said, "If you do not sing then of course you cannot entertain me. Let me hear your wisdom, and if it teaches me anything, I will give you your freedom."

Then the little bird said, "First: Do not grieve over things that have already happened. Second: Do not wish for that which is unattainable. Third: Do not believe in that which cannot be possible."

Then the master of the garden said, "You have indeed taught me something. I will give you your freedom."

Letting the bird fly away, he thought seriously about its words. Then he heard it laughing quietly. Its voice came from a tree where the bird was sitting.

"Why are you laughing so cheerfully?" shouted the man.

"About my easily won freedom," answered the bird, "and more than that, about the foolishness of humans who believe they are smarter than all other creatures. If you had been smarter, only just as smart as I am, then you would now be the richest man."

"How would that have been possible?" asked the master of the garden.

The bird replied, "If, instead of giving me my freedom, you had kept me, for in my body I have a diamond the size of a hen's egg."

The man stood there as though he were petrified. After recovering from the surprise, he began to speak, "You think that you are happy because I gave you your freedom. But summer will soon be over and winter with its storms will arrive. The brooks will freeze over, and you will not be able to find a single drop of water to quench your thirst. The fields will be covered with snow, and you will not find anything to eat. But I will give you a warm place where you can freely fly around, and you can have as much water and bread as you want. Come down, and I will show you that you are better off with me than with your freedom."

Thus spoke the master of the garden, but the little bird laughed louder than before, making the man even angrier.

"You are still laughing?" asked the man.

"Of course," replied the bird. "See, you gave me my freedom on account of the teachings that I gave you, and now you are so foolish that you do not take the teachings to heart. I earned my freedom fairly, but you forgot my teachings after only a few minutes. You should not grieve over things that have already happened, but still you are grieving that you gave me my freedom. You should not wish for things that you cannot obtain, and yet you want me, for whom freedom is my whole life, to voluntarily enter a prison. You should not believe that which is impossible, and yet you believe that I am carrying about inside my body a diamond as large as a hen's egg, although I myself am only half the size of a hen's egg."

And with that the bird flew away.

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Revised March 19, 2013.