Generosity of Spirit in World Folktales and Myths
Wise Lessons from Global Storytelling
From earliest childhood we are captivated by the sounds of the human voice telling a story. There is an elemental, magnetic pull to hear the myths, fables and parables that are a part of our varied cultures. We learn early life lessons from these wise folktales with their colorful characters and episodes.
The Fetzer Institute's mission is to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the global community. In collaboration with the Institute's Generosity of Spirit project team, Learning to Give brings you stories which speak to the gifts and challenges of leading a generous life. Whether teacher, parent, youth worker or religious instructor, these folktales form a cultural memory of who we have been. . . who we are . . . and who we might become.
Deceptively simple, these stories become amazingly wise, rich and deep upon discussion and reflection. To enrich your experience, a companion Reflection Guide has been developed (PDF attached at the bottom of this page). Lesson plans are also available, they were created specifically for high school students or adults.
Through reading world folktales, these high school lesson plans explore cultural influences and motivations for giving. Families discuss their cultural tradition of giving and make a plan of action.
Tell me a story…
- The Collared Crow: A South African Tale: The crows come and eat a farmer's seeds as they are sowing the fields. The couple are about to hold on to their remaining seeds when a crow encourages them to give them to the birds.
- Cruel Creditor and the Judge’s Wise Daughter: A Moroccan Tale: When his father dies a young man quickly spends all his wealth and finds himself begging. Others help him along the way.
- Gratitude: The Hunter and the Antelope: An African Tale: A hunter assists a crocodile only to find that the crocodile plans to eat him. Four different opinions are given as to what debt of gratitude is owed the hunter.
- The Ostrich Egg Wife: A South African Tale: A poor man finds an ostrich-egg and brings it home. A young woman emerges from the egg and becomes his wife, helping him become a chief. When he breaks his promise to her, he loses everything.
- Selekana & the River of God: A South African Tale: Selekana receives many gifts for her kindness, and the other girls envy her and trick her into throwing all her bracelets and ornaments into the river.
- Aina-Kizz and the Black-Bearded Bai: A Central Asian Tale: A poor woodcutter is swindled by a wealthy man, but his daughter outwits the man by telling a greater lie. Wit and intelligence are more useful than wealth.
- Banyan Deer: A Buddhist Tale: To prevent a doe and her unborn fawn from being killed, the Buddha-to-be offers his own life. The king, greatly moved by this act of generosity, abandons hunting and agrees to protect all living creatures.
- The Blossom Tree: A Buddhist Tale: A king is determined to cut down a venerable tree. The tree is inhabited by a tree spirit who manages to save her home and friend.
- Both Friend and Foes the Saints Adore: An Indian Tale: A monk is able to see the potential for both good and evil in everyone.
- Brave Little Parrot: A Buddhist Tale: Tirelessly working to put out a fire that was harming the homes and lives of others, a small parrot is determined to make a difference.
- The Clever Wife: A Central Asian (Khirghiz) Tale: The khan (leader) gives instructions on who is to follow him at his death.
- A Couple of Misers: An Indian Tale: A man and wife receive a visitor one rainy night. He praises them for welcoming him, and, little by little, teaches them how to share what they have.
- The Drum: A Hindu Tale: A mother is disappointed when she can't give her son the one gift he wants. Later the son's generosity returns to him and he receives the gift after all.
- Earth Cakes, Sky Cakes: A Vietnamese Tale: The king issues a decree that each one of his sons is to prepare a special dish to offer to the ancestors. One of the princes expresses the simplicity and beauty of the land by creating rice cakes that represent the earth and sky.
- A Flowering Tree: An Indian Tale: A young girl assists her mother by transforming herself into a flowering tree and selling the flowers.
- Great Joy the Ox: An Indian Tale: A faithful oxen convinces his master, a poor farmer, to wager on him and his strength. In the end, the respect and kindness the farmer gives the ox determines a win or loss.
- King Who Was Fried: An Indian Tale: A fakir [holy man] will give the king a great quantity of gold every day if he allows himself to be fried and eaten each morning (and then brought back to life). The king submits and distributes the gold to the poor, but then is dismayed to hear a pair of swans singing the praises of a king more generous than he.
- Kogi the Priest: A Buddhist Tale: A young man grows up to be a harpooner on a whaling ship. One day he suddenly discovers himself to be a whale—the very one he was setting out to kill. After this experience Eizo gives up whaling and becomes a Zen priest.
- Lord of the Cranes: A Chinese Tale: A wise old man, Tian, comes to the city to find out how generous and kind the people are—he exchanges clothes with a beggar and begins to beg. A generous innkeeper welcomes him every day at his door and never asks for any payment. Tian rewards him in a very special way and asks for one simple request in return.
- Lo-Sun, the Blind Boy: An Asian Tale: Lo-Sun, a blind boy, is rejected by his parents and wanders about begging, in the company of his faithful dog. He dreams that if he performs good actions his eyesight will come back to him. True generosity often asks us to sacrifice what we love most
- The Old Alchemist: A Burmese Tale: A young man is obsessed with his schemes for turning matter into gold. His wife's father realizes his daughter will suffer if her husband doesn't learn how to make a real living, so he devises a ruse to get him to earn a living.
- Padmasumbhava and the Felicity Scarf: A Tibetan Tale: The story of how giving scarves in Tibet is a gesture of respect.
- Sedge Hats for Jizo: A Japanese Tale: A poor woodcarver and his wife make sedge hats to sell, although none are sold. The woodcarver decides to give each of the three stone statues a hat to protect them from the icy rain, and his wife approves. In the night the statues come to show their gratitude and present the couple with magic gifts, one of which restores their youth.
- Silk Brocade: A Chinese Tale: A woman’s sons set out in search of the cherished silk brocade she has woven. When the two eldest sons refuse to follow the instructions to retrieve the stolen brocade, the youngest son fearlessly accepts the challenge. A magical reward is given to him and his mother.
- The Steadfast Parrot: An Indian Tale: A parrot remains loyal to the fig tree where he makes his home, although he is being tested.
- A Story and a Song An Indian Tale: A housewife knows a story and a song, but never shares them. They escape her and take their revenge, turning themselves into a coat and a pair of shoes. The woman's husband very suspicious when she cannot explain why the coat and shoes are outside the door.
- The Story Bag: A Korean Tale: A young boy greedily demands stories from everyone he meets, stuffing them into a “story-bag” and never sharing them. When he grows up and is about to be married, a servant overhears the stories plotting to take revenge
- Story of the Two Old Women: A Bangladeshi tale: Two old women decide to share belongings. The clever one suggests a way of sharing by which only she benefits. With the advice of a friend the foolish one turns the table on the other.
- The Wise Quail: An Indian (Buddhist) Tale: The Buddha-to-be, born as a quail, instructs his flock how to escape the hunter’s nets by working together. He then encourages them to move deeper into the forest in order to practice cooperation. Some of the quail refuse to leave, and as a result of their arguing, they are caught by the hunter and perish.
- The Young Man Who Refused to Kill: A Tibetan Tale: After criticism and misunderstanding, a young man is rewarded for his compassion toward all living beings.
- How the Kangaroo Got Her Pouch: An old wombat, who is a god in disguise, is treated kindly by a mother kangaroo, and offers her a way of keeping her joey close by—a pouch on her belly to carry him in.
- How the Selfish Goannas Lost Their Wives: After a terrible drought in the country, all of the living beings were in desperate need of water. The female goanna (lizards) wanted to share their secret water source, but their husbands refused. These differences divided the men and woman an eventually a river began flowing and separating the two groups.
- The Secret of Dreaming: The first animals pass along the secret of dreaming, but only man understands it, and recognizes his role as protector of creation.
- Beth Gellert: A Welsh Tale: A faithful greyhound is suspected of having killed his master’s infant son. When the truth of his fidelity is discovered it is too late—his master has already drawn his sword and killed him. Suspicion often rests on surface impressions.
- The Fairy Shilling: An Irish Tale: A man receives a shilling in return for a kindness and soon discovers that no matter where he spends it, the shilling always reappears in his pocket. Finally he takes the shilling to a priest who makes a sign of the cross over it, and it dissolves. Are there some gifts we fear will hold us in their power?
- The Three Fayes: A Swedish Tale: A young woman must perform some dreaded tasks to earn the prince in marriage. Three old fairies (fayes) help her and, after meeting her prince on their wedding day, end up delivering her from ever having to complete those tasks again!
- A Calabash of Poi: Pele, the Goddess of fire, disguises herself as an old woman and visits two families. She is not welcomed at the first home, but is generously received at the second. “Don’t you ever forget to be nice to the old folks,” is the moral pronounced at the end of the story.
- The Clothesline: When a woman’s neighbor maliciously cuts down the clotheslines suspending her clean laundry, the woman restrains herself from anger or from gossiping about the incident.
- Defending His Property: An innkeeper, troubled by thieves, comes to Rabbi Yitzhak for his blessing, intending to go to buy a rifle to defend his property. The rabbi will not bless the journey, pointing out how violence will only escalate. In the end the rabbi comes up with a proposal to help the innkeeper.
- Even Her Taking Was Giving: A generous woman whose home was open to all visitors, once borrowed money from her neighbor. When asked by her son why she had borrowed it, she explained that it was so her neighbor would never feel ashamed of coming to her if he was in need.
- Loosening the Stopper: A pair of rabbis set out to raise some funds for a worthy cause. They approach a wealthy man whose generosity has become blocked, and one of the rabbis knew how to help him unstop it.
- The Magic Pomegranate: Three brothers set out to find unusual gifts. Ten years pass and when they unite they have each found magic objects that will test their relationships and their generous spirits. How does giving change us?
- A Special Gift: A childless woman volunteers at a hospital where she cares for a woman with no family. When the woman lies dying she promises her friend she will send her a baby. Shortly afterwards, the childless woman has a child of her own.
- Three Laughs: When the Baal Shem Tov laughs three times during the Sabbath meal, his disciples ask him to explain. He was inspired by an elderly bookbinder who sang and danced on the Sabbath in celebration of his many years of marriage. The man is recognized for celebrating his true love for his wife, even if on the Sabbath.
- The Treasure: A Rabbi, after many years of great poverty, dreams he is to travel to Prague to look for a treasure. This he does, only to be told that the treasure lies beneath his own stove at home.
Latin American Stories
- A Boy and His Donkey: A young boy sets out to look for work to help his mother, and on his way he meets the Virgin Mary. She gives him three apples and advises him to recognize a worthy companion by offering a part of the apple and seeing which half is accepted.
- The Harvest Birds: A poor man dreams of owning his own land and farming it. Through hard work and wisdom, he succeeds.
- The Hog: Selfishness and deceit will come back around to you.
- The Little Boy Who Talked with Birds: A young man works in the fields with his father daily, and every day the birds communicate with him, making him laugh and smile. When the father insists on knowing what the birds are saying he is unhappy and sends his son away. Using his special gift, the boy receives a great blessing and the prophecy comes true.
- The Tatema: A lazy man helps a man with a runaway horse and in return he is amply rewarded.
- Trouble With Helping Out: When a hunter helps a snake out of a hole he expects the snake to be grateful and not to harm him. The two argue about the logic of returning evil for good, asking others to advise them. Anansi the spider creatively gets out of answering the question.
Native American & Inuit Stories
- Bokwewa or the Humpback from the Ojibwa: An Ojibwa Tale: Although physically deformed, Bokwewa is gifted in supernatural ways and has a very generous and loving spirit. When his brother goes after his wife’s kidnapper, Bokwewa warns him to resist temptations that will divert him. He doesn’t obey and Bokwewa attempts to rescue him.
- The Circle of Life and the Clambake: A Wampanoag Tale: The story of the big white wale and how the Wampanoag people came to appreciate the circle of life.
- The Hopis and the Famine: A Hopi Tale: As a result of his wife’s infidelity, a young rain priest puts a famine on the land. When the rain priest returns to the desolate land he is merciful and generous, feeding and teaching them. When it is time for him to leave again the priests stay with the Hopis to intervene supernaturally for the people.
- The Magic BearL An Inuit Tale: A childless couple receives the gift of a child from the blood of a polar bear. When his father insists on the bear hunting one of its own kind, the bear does as he is told but then leaves his home, never to return.
- The Man Who Transgressed a Taboo A Menomini Tale: The story of a man who turned a curse into a blessing. It was the deceit and selfishness of his comrades that made the man turn into a catfish, and he used it to bring provision to his father.
- Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale: A faithful young man embarks upon his ceremonial fast hoping to meet his life guardian. He is blessed as he follows the instructions given to him by the guardian, and he is eventually given a crop that will provide for his family.
- Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects: An Inuit Tale: An old woman is left behind when her family leaves the village where they live. She chooses not to eat the insects, which are her only source of food. As a reward for her kindness her youth is restored.
- Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Ojibwa: An Ojibwa Tale: Despite the pleas of their deceased parents, two siblings leave their young and frail brother to care for himself while they live selfishly. The young boy adapts to living wildly and is changed forever as a result.
- Thunder Deputizes Eagle: A Cherokee Tale: The Eagle has been chosen by Thunder, the Ruler of all the Earth and Heaven, to give specific traits to all of the animals. An illustration for a discussion on responsibility and power.
- Tiggak: An Inuit Tale: A man shows respect for the needs of the animals and in turn he is repaid with good portion.
- The Two Jeebi-ug or a Trial of Feeling from the Ojibwa: An Ojibwa Tale: Illustrating the importance of kindness to strangers, the patience of a man and his wife are tested when eerie and mysterious guests come for a lengthy visit.
Middle Eastern Stories
- Luck of a Child: A Kurdish Tale: A poor man and his wife are lamenting their poverty when a stranger appears asking for some straw. The couple gladly gives him some straw, and they soon find out that the stranger, the prophet Elijah, has bestowed many blessings on them.
- Ma’ruf the Shoemaker: A Palestinian Tale: A poor shoemaker is angry and abandons his wife after she mistreats his generosity. He ends up in Egypt where he carelessly gives away money given him by a friend, weaving a web of lies to protect himself. The story follows him on his adventures.
- Mullah in the Turkish Bath: A Sufi & Persian Tale: Mullah tips excessively for poor service, and then gives less for excellent attention in the Turkish bath. How are our actions determined by our expectations of reward?
- Mullah's Miracle: A Sufi & Persian Tale: Mullah Nasruddin demonstrates that miracles are all in the eye of the beholder.
- Sayed's Boots: An Iranian Tale: A new world version of Abu Kasem's slippers.
- Soup of the Soup: A Sufi Tale: Nasrudin Hodja acts hospitably when his good friend is standing on the doorstep with a fine-looking rabbit in hand. Hassan is invited in and a feast is prepared. But when visitors interrupt that man’s evening meal on a succession of nights, he comes up with a plan to discourage others from coming empty-handed.
- Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife: A Persian Tale: A husband and wife cannot stop arguing. They make a wager and, in stubbornness, stick to it so literally that they almost lose everything they have.
- Three Fridays: A Sufi Tale: Usually the Hodja has no trouble coming up with the sermon to deliver on Friday afternoons. However, when he draws a blank, he uses his creativity and then he doesn’t have to give a sermon for weeks!
- The Woodcutter: A Palestinian Tale: A poor woodcutter drops a fava bean down a well and starts moaning. The spirits who live in the well give him a series of magic objects to keep him quiet. He loses the first two to his neighbors, but then regains them. Even foolishness is sometimes rewarded with useful gifts.
- Evil Allures But Good Endures: A master’s slaves praise him for his kindness. One amongst them lays a wager that if he is provoked, their master will lose his temper and prove himself just as evil as any other master. When a trusted slave deliberately angers his master, he does an amazing thing. Tempted by anger, a good man upholds his virtue.
- The Lime Tree: A poor cottager is granted wishes by a magic lime tree. He gets carried away and eventually loses everything. Lack of contentment can lead you astray.
- The Lute Player: When a king finds himself imprisoned, it is his faithful wife who finds an honest and creative way to have him released.
- Where Love Is, God Is: A cobbler loses his faith when his son dies and recovers it when he finds out how to live for God. The cure for grief is reaching out to those in need.