Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Transformation-Donkey, The


THERE was once a poor chicory-seller: all chicory-sellers are poor, but this was a very poor one, and he had a large family of daughters and two sons. The daughters he left at home with their mother, but the two sons he took with him to gather chicory. While they were out gathering chicory one day, a great bird flew down before them and dropped an egg and then flew away again. The boys picked up the egg and brought it to their father, because there were some figures like strange writing on it which they could not read; but neither could the father read the strange writing, so he took the egg to a farmer. [2] The farmer read the writing, and it said:--

               'Whoso eats my head, he shall be an emperor.'

               'Whoso eats my heart, he shall never want for money.'

               'Ho, ho!' said the farmer to himself, 'it won't do to tell the fellow this; I must manage to eat both the head and the heart myself.' So he said, 'The meaning of it is that whoever eats the bird will make a very good dinner; so to-morrow when the bird comes back, as she doubtless will to lay another egg, have a good stick ready and knock her down; then you can make a fire, and bake it between the stones, and I will come and eat it with you if you like.'

               The poor chicory-seller thought his fortune was made when a farmer offered to dine with him, and the hours seemed long enough till next morning came.

               With next morning, however, came the bird again. The chicory-seller was ready with his stick and knocked her down, and the boys made a fire and cooked the bird. But as they were not very apt at the trussing and cooking, the head dropped into the fire, and the youngest boy said: 'This will never do to serve up, all burnt as it is;' so he ate it. The heart also fell into the fire and got burnt, and the eldest boy said: 'This will never do to serve up, all burnt as it is;' so he ate that.

               By-and-by the farmer came, and they all sat down on a bank--the farmer quite jovial at the idea of the immense advantage he was going to gain, and the chicory-seller quite elated at the idea of entertaining a farmer.

               'Bring forward the roast, boys,' said the father; and the boys brought the bird.

               'What have you done with the head?' exclaimed the farmer, the moment he saw the bird.

               'Oh, it got burnt, and I ate it,' said the younger boy.

               The merchant ground his teeth and stamped his foot, but he dared not say why he was so angry; so he sat silent while the chicory-seller took out his knife [3] and cut the bird up in portions.

               'Give me the piece with the heart, if I may choose,' said the merchant; 'I'm very fond of birds' hearts.'

               'Certainly, any part you like,' replied the chicory-seller, nervously turning all the pieces over and over again; 'but I can't find any heart. Boys, had the bird no heart?'

               'Yes, papa,' answered the elder brother, 'it had a heart, sure enough; but it tumbled into the fire and got burnt, and so I ate it.'

               There was no object in disguising his fury any longer, so the farmer exclaimed testily, 'Thank you, I'll not have any then; the head and the heart are just the only parts of a bird I care to eat.' And so saying he turned on his heel and went away.

               'Look, boys, what you've done! You've thrown away the best chance we ever had in our lives!' cried the father in despair. [4] 'After the farmer had taken dinner with us he must have asked us to dine with him, and, as one civility always brings another, there is no saying what it might not have led to. However, as you have chosen to throw the chance away, you may go and look out for yourselves. I've done with you.' And with a sound cudgelling [5] he drove them away.

               The two boys, left to themselves, wandered on till they came to a stable, when they entered the yard and asked to be allowed to do some work or other as a means of subsistence.

               'I've nothing for you to do,' said the landlord; 'but, as it's late, you may sleep on the straw there, on the condition that you go about your business to-morrow first thing.'

               The boys, glad to get a night's lodging on any condition, went to sleep in the straw. When the elder brother woke in the morning he found a box of sequins [6] under his head.

               'How could this have come here,' soliloquised the boy, 'unless the host had put it there to see if we were honest? Well, thank God, if we're poor there's no danger of either of us taking what doesn't belong to us.' So he took the box to the host, and said: 'There's your box of sequins quite safe. You needn't have taken the trouble to test our honesty in that way.'

               The host was very much surprised, but he thought the best way was to take the money and say nothing but 'I'm glad to see you're such good boys.' So he gave them breakfast and some provisions for the way.

               Next night they found themselves still in the open country and no inn near, and they were obliged to be content to sleep on the bare ground. Next morning when they woke the younger boy again found a box of sequins under his head.

               'Only think of that host not being satisfied with trying us once, but to come all this way after us to test our honesty again. However, I suppose we must take it back to him.'

               So they walked all the way back to the host and said: 'Here's your box of sequins back; as we didn't steal it the first time it was not likely we should take it the second time.'

               The host was more and more astonished; but he took the money without saying anything, only he praised the boys for being so good and gave them a hearty meal. And they went their way, taking a new direction.

               The next night the younger brother said: 'Do you know I've my doubts about the host having put that box of sequins under your head. How could he have done it out in the open country without our seeing him? To-night I will watch, and if he doesn't come, and in the morning there is another box of sequins, it will be a sign that it is your own.'

               He did so, and next morning there was another box of sequins. So they decided it was honestly their own, and they carried it by turns and journeyed on. About noon they came to a great city where the emperor was lately dead, and all the people were in great excitement about choosing another emperor. The population was all divided in factions, each of which had a candidate, and none would let the candidate of the others reign. There was so much fighting and quarrelling in the streets that the brothers got separated, and saw each other no more.

               At this time it happened that it was the turn of the younger brother to be carrying the box of sequins. When the sentinels at the gate saw a stranger coming in carrying a box they said, 'We must see what this is,' and they took him to the minister. When the minister saw his box was full of sequins he said, 'This must be our emperor.' And all the people said, 'Yes, this is our emperor. Long live our emperor!' And thus the boy became an emperor.

               But the elder brother had entered unperceived into the town, and went to ask hospitality in a house where was a woman with a beautiful daughter; so they let him stay. That night also there came a box of sequins under his head; so he went out and bought meat and fuel and all manner of provisions, and gave them to the mother, and said, 'Because you took me in when I was poor last night, I have brought you all these provisions out of gratitude,' and for the beautiful daughter he bought silks and damasks, and ornaments of gold. But the daughter said, 'How comes it, tell me, that you, who were a poor footsore wayfarer last night, have now such boundless riches at command?' And because she was beautiful and spoke kindly to him, he suspected no evil, but told her, saying, 'Every morning when I wake now, I find a box of sequins under my head.'

               'And how comes it,' said she, 'that you find a box of sequins under your head now, and not formerly?' 'I do not know,' he answered, 'unless it be because one day when I was out with father gathering chicory, a great bird came and dropt an egg with some strange writing on it, which we could not read. But a farmer read it for us; only he would not tell us what it said, but that we should cook the bird and eat it. While we were cooking it the heart fell into the fire and got burnt, and I ate it: and when the farmer heard this he grew very angry. I think, therefore, the writing on the egg said that he who ate the heart of the bird should have many sequins.'

               After this they spent the day pleasantly together; but the daughter put an emetic in his wine at supper, and so made him bring up the bird's heart, which she kept for herself, and the next morning when he woke there was no box of sequins under his head. When he rose in the morning also the beautiful girl and her mother turned him out of the house, and he wandered forth again.

               At last, being weary and full of sorrow, he sat down on the ground by the side of a stream crying. Immediately three fairies appeared to him and asked him why he wept. And when he told them, they said to him: 'Weep no more, for instead of the bird's heart we give you this sheepskin jacket, the pockets of which will always be full of sequins. How many soever you may take out they will always remain full.' Then they disappeared; but he immediately went back to the house of the beautiful girl, taking her rich and fine presents; but she said to him, 'How comes it that you, who had no money left when you went away, have now the means to buy all these fine presents?' Then he told her of the gift of the three fairies, and they let him sleep in the house again, but the daughter called her maid to her and said: 'Make a sheepskin jacket exactly like that in the stranger's room.' So she made one, and they put it in his room, and took away the one the fairies had given him, and in the morning they drove him from the house again. Then he went and sat down by the stream and wept again; but the fairies came and asked him why he wept; and he told them, saying, 'Because they have driven me away from the house where I stayed, and I have no home to go to, and this jacket has no more sequins in the pockets.' Then the fairies looked at the jacket, and they said, 'This is not the jacket we gave you; it has been changed by fraud:' so they gave him in place of it a wand, and they said, 'With this wand strike the table, and whatever you may desire, be it meat or drink or clothes, or whatsoever you may want, it shall come upon the table.' The next day he went back to the house of the woman and her daughter, and sat down without saying anything, but he struck the table with his wand, wishing for a great banquet, and immediately it was covered with the choicest dishes. There was no need to ask him questions this time, for they saw in what his gift consisted, and in the night, when he was asleep, they took his wand away. In the morning they drove him forth out of the house, and he went back to the stream and sat down to cry. Again the fairies appeared to him and comforted him; but they said, 'This is the last time we may appear to you. Here is a ring; keep it on your hand; for if you lose this gift there is nothing more we may do for you;' and they went away. But he immediately returned to the house of the woman and her beautiful daughter. They let him in, 'Because,' they said, 'doubtless the fairies have given him some other gift of which we may take profit.' And as he sat there he said, 'All the other gifts of the fairies have I lost, but this one they have given me now I cannot lose, because it is a ring which fits my finger, and no one can take it from my hand.'

               'And of what use is your ring?' asked the beautiful daughter.

               'Its use is that whatever I wish for while I have it on I obtain directly, whatever it may be.'

               'Then wish,' said she, 'that we may be both together on the top of that high mountain, and a sumptuous merenda [7] spread out for us.'

               'To be sure!' he replied, and he repeated her wish. Instantly they found themselves on the top of the high mountain with a plentiful merenda before them; but she had a vial of opium with her, and while his head was turned away she poured the opium into his wine. Presently after this he fell into a sound sleep, so sound that there was no fear of waking him. Immediately she took the ring from his finger and put it on her own; then she wished that she might be replaced at home and that he might be left on the top of the mountain. And so it was done.

               In the morning when he woke and found himself all alone on the top of the high mountain and his ring gone, he wept bitter tears, and felt too weary to attempt the descent of the steep mountain side. For three days he remained here weary and weeping, and then, becoming faint from hunger, he took some of the herbs that grew on the mountain top for food. As soon as he had eaten these he was turned into a donkey, [8] but as he retained his human intelligence, he said to himself, this herb has its uses, and he filled one of the panniers on his back with it. Then he came down from the mountain, and when he was at the foot of it, being hungry with the long journey, he ate of the grass that grew there, and, behold! he was transformed back into his natural shape; so he filled the other basket with this kind of grass and went his way.

               Having dressed himself like a street seller, he took the basket of the herb which had the property of changing the eater into a donkey, and stood under the window of the house where he had been so evil entreated, and cried, 'Fine salad! fine salad! who will buy my fine salad?' [9]

               'What is there so specially good about your salad?' asked the maid, looking out. 'My young mistress is particularly fond of salad, so if yours is so very superfine, you had better come up.'

               He did not wait to be twice told. As soon as he saw the beautiful daughter, he said, 'This is fine salad, indeed, the finest of the fine, all fresh gathered, and the first of its kind that ever was sold.'

               'Very likely it's the first of its kind that ever was sold,' said she; 'but I don't like to buy things I haven't tried; it may turn out not to be nice.'

               'Oh, try it, try it freely; don't buy without trying;' and he picked one of the freshest and crispest bunches.

               She took one in her hand and bit a few blades, and no sooner had she done so than she too became a donkey. Then he put the panniers on her back and drove her all over the town, constantly cudgelling her till she sank under the blows. Then one who saw him belabour her thus, said, 'This must not be; you must come and answer before the emperor for thus belabouring the poor brute;' but he refused to go unless he took the donkey with him; so they went to the emperor and said, 'Here is one who is belabouring his donkey till she has sunk under his blows, and he refuses to come before the emperor to answer his cruelty unless he bring his donkey with him.' And the emperor made answer, 'Let him bring the beast with him.'

               So they brought him and his donkey before the emperor. When he found himself before the emperor he said, 'All these must go away; to the emperor alone can I tell why I belabour my donkey.' So the emperor commanded all the people to go to a distance while he took him and his donkey apart. As soon as he found himself alone with the emperor he said, 'See, it is I, thy brother!' and he embraced him. Then he told him all that had befallen him since they parted. Then said the emperor to the donkey, 'Go now with him home, and show him where thou hast laid all the things--the bird's heart, the sheepskin jacket, the wand, and the ring, that he may bring them hither; and if thou deliver them up faithfully I will command that he give thee of that grass to eat which shall give thee back thy natural form.'

               So they went back to the house and fetched all the things, and the emperor said, 'Come thou now and live with me, and give me of thy sequins, and I will share the empire with thee.' Thus they reigned together.

               But to the donkey they gave of the grass to eat, which restored her natural form, only that her beauty was marred by the cudgelling she had received. And she said, 'Had I not been so wilful and malicious I had now been empress.'


In these stories we have had the actions of three Fate, somewhat resembling English fairies; in the following, we meet with three who, as often happens in Roman stories, are nothing better than witches.


[1] 'La Somara.'

[2] The 'mercante di Campagna' occupies the place of farmer in the social system of Rome; that is, he produces and deals in grain and cattle; there is 'buttaro' (cattle breeder) besides; but the characteristics of each are so different that the one does not well translate the other.

[3] 'Cortello' for 'coltello' (a knife). The substitution of r for l in a good many words is a common Romanism.

[4] 'Dishperato' for 'disperato' ('out of himself with vexation'), is another Romanism; as also [5] 'Bashtonata' for 'bastonata' (a cudgelling); at least many Romans, particularly old-fashioned people, when using some words in which sp and st occur, put in an h on occasions requiring great vehemence of expression.

[6] Zecchini. The zecchino was the gold standard coin in Rome before that of the scudo was adopted. Its value was fixed in the reign of Clement XIII., 1758, at two scudi and twenty bajocchi--something between 10s. and 11s.; it was current till a few years back; and 'zecchini' is a common way of saying 'money' when a large sum is spoken of, just as we still talk of guineas.

[7] 'Merenda' is a supplementary meal taken at any time of day. It is not exactly lunch, because the habit of taking lunch at one and dining late has not yet obtained to any great extent in Rome; and where it has, lunch is called 'déjeûner'; breakfast (i.e. a cup of coffee and a roll early in the morning) is always called 'colazione.' The established custom of Rome is dinner ('pranzo,' or 'desinare,') at twelve, and supper ('cena') an hour or two after the Ave, varying, therefore, according to the time of year, from six or seven till nine or ten, and even later. 'Merenda' is a light meal between 'pranzo' and 'cena' of not altogether general use, and chiefly on occasions of driving outside the gates to spend the afternoon at a country villa or casino.

[8] 'Soma' is a burden; 'somaro' or 'somura' an ass used for carrying burdens. Thus in the next line it is spoken of as having panniers on as a matter of course.

[9] 'Che bell' insalatina; chi vuol insalatina; che bell' insalatina!' a common form of crying. 'Che belle mela!' 'What fine apples!' 'Che belle persiche!' or 'What fine peaches!' may be heard all the year round.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Transformation-Donkey, The
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

Back to Top