Once upon a time there lived a shepherd who served his master faithfully and honestly. One day whilst keeping the sheep in the forest, he heard a hissing, and wondered what the noise could be. So he went farther into the wood to try and find out. There he saw that the forest was on fire, and a snake was hissing in the midst of the flames. The shepherd watched to see what the snake would do, for it was quite surrounded by the fire, which approached it nearer and nearer.
Then the snake cried out, “For God’s sake, good shepherd, save me from the fire!”
So the shepherd stretched his crook across the flames and the snake glided rapidly over the staff and up his arm onto his shoulder, till at last it wound itself round his neck. Then the shepherd was terrified and exclaimed, “What shall I do? What an unlucky wretch I am! I saved you, and now your are about to kill me!”
The snake answered, “Do not be afraid. Only take me to the house of my father. My father is the king of snakes.”
But the shepherd, being already in great fear, began to excuse himself, saying he must not leave his sheep. Then the snake said, “Nothing will happen to your sheep. Do not be anxious about them. But let us hurry home.”
So the shepherd went on with the snake through the forest, until they came to a gate made entirely of snakes. Then the snake on the neck of the shepherd hissed, and instantly the snakes untwined themselves, so that the man could pass through. As soon as they had gone through, the snake said to him, “When you reach my father’s house he will offer to give you whatever you like — gold, silver, or precious stones. Do not, however, take any of these things. Choose, instead, the language of animals. He will hesitate at first, but at last he will give it you.”
Meanwhile they arrived at the palace, and the king of snakes said, weeping, “For God’s sake, my child, where were you?” Thereupon the snake told him all that had happened, how he had been surrounded by fire, and the shepherd had saved him. Then the snake king said to the shepherd, “What do you wish that I should give you for saving my son?”
The shepherd answered, “I desire nothing but the language of animals.”
The snake king, however, said, “That is not good for you, for if I give it you, and you tell anyone about it, you will instantly die. Therefore it is better that you ask me for something else.”
“If you wish to give me anything,” replied the shepherd, “give me the language of animals. If you will not give me that, I want nothing — so good-bye,” and he turned to go away.
Then the snake king called him back, saying, “If you indeed wish it so much, take it. Open your mouth.” The shepherd did so, and the snake king blew into his mouth, and said, “Now blow once yourself in my mouth.” The Shepherd did so, and then the snake king blew again into his mouth, and this they did three times. After that the snake said, “Now you possess the language of animals. Go, in God’s name, but do not for the world tell anyone about it. If you tell anyone you will instantly die.”
The shepherd returned across the forest, and, passing through it, he understood everything the birds and animals, and even the plants were saying to each other. When he came to his sheep he found them all there, safe and sound, so he laid himself down to rest a little.
Hardly had he done so before two or three ravens settled on a tree near him, and began to converse together, saying, “If that shepherd only knew that just on the spot where the black sheep is lying there is, deep in the earth, a cave full of gold and silver!”
When the shepherd heard that he went off to his master and told him. The master brought a cart, and dug down to the cave, and carried the treasure away home. But the master was honest, so he gave up the whole of the treasure to the shepherd, saying, “Here my son, all this wealth belongs to you. For to you God gave it. Build a house, marry, and live upon the treasure.”
So the shepherd took the money, built a house, and married, and by and by he became the richest man in the whole neighborhood. He kept his own shepherd, and cattle driver, and swineherd. In short, he had great property and made much money.
Once, just at Christmas, he said to his wife, “Get ready some wine and other food, and tomorrow we will feast the shepherds.”
The wife did so, and in the morning they went to their farm. Towards evening the master said to the shepherds, “Come here, all of you. You shall eat, drink, and make merry together, and I will go myself this night to watch the sheep.”
So the master went to watch his sheep, and, about midnight, the wolves began to howl and the dogs to bark. The wolves spoke, in wolf language, “May we come and take something? You also, shall get a part of the prey.”
And the dogs answered, in dog language, “Come! We also are ready to eat something.”
But there was one old dog there who had only two teeth left. This old dog shouted furiously, “Come on, you miserable wretches, if you dare. So long as I have these two teeth left you shall not do any damage to my master’s property.”
All this the master heard and understood. Next day he ordered all the dogs to be killed except that old one. The servants began to remonstrate, saying, “For God’s sake, master, it is a pity to do this.”
But the master answered, “Do as I have ordered you,” and started with his wife to go home. They rode on horseback, he on a fine horse and his wife on a handsome mare. But the master’s horse went so fast that the wife remained a little behind.
Then the master’s horse neighed, and said to the mare, “Come on, why do you stay behind?”
And the mare answered, “Ah, to you it is easy — you are carrying only one weight, and I am carrying three.”
Thereupon the man turned his head and laughed. The wife saw him laughing, and urged the mare on quicker till she came up to her husband, and asked him, “Why were you laughing?”
He said merely, “I had good reason to laugh!”
But the wife was not satisfied, and again begged he would tell her why he laughed. He excused himself, exclaiming, “Give up questioning me. What has come to you, my wife? I forget now why it was I laughed.”
But the more he refused to tell her, the more she wished to know. At last the man said, “If I tell you I shall die immediately!”
That, however, did not quiet her, and she kept on asking, saying to him, “You must tell me.”
In the meantime they reached their house. When they had done so the man ordered a coffin to be made, and, when it was ready, had it placed in front of the house, and laid himself down in it. Then he said to his wife, “Now I will tell you why I laughed, but the moment I tell you I shall die.”
So he looked around once more, and saw that the old dog had come from the field, and had taken his stand over his head, and was howling. When the man noticed this he said to his wife, “Bring a piece of bread for this poor dog.”
The wife brought a piece and threw it to the dog, but the dog did not even look at it, and a cock came near and began to peck at it.
Then the dog said to the cock, “You think only about eating. Do you know that our master is going to die?”
And the cock answered, “Well, let him die, since he is so stupid. I have a hundred wives, and often at nights I gather them all round a grain of corn, and, when they are all there, I pick it up myself. If any of them are angry, I peck them. That is my way of keeping them quiet. Only look at the master, however. He is not able to rule one single wife!”
The man, hearing that, got out of the coffin, took a stick, and called his wife to him, saying slyly, “Come now, and I will tell you what you want to know.”
The wife, seeing she was in danger of getting a beating, left him in peace, and never asked him again why it was he laughed.
The man nodded to himself. Learning to be smarter than the animals is hard. I am learning.
- Source: Csedomille Mijatovies, Serbian Folk-Lore (London: W. Isbister and Company, 1874), pp. 37-42. (With the addition of one line by G. Opacic)
I love the old folk tales. We don’t hear enough of them these days. This one is exceptional. Thank you.