The Milkmaid & Her Pail

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Milkmaid and Her Pail is counted as one of Aesop’s Fables and is the source of the proverb Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

It is Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1430, Air Castles.

The story

A milkmaid carries her pail of milk on her head, dreaming of how she will get cream from the milk, which she can then turn into butter, which she will then sell at the market, which will give her money to buy eggs, which will grow into chickens, so she can sell them and buy a beautiful dress to wear to the dance where she will be much admired and toss her head grandly. At that point in her day dreaming, she acts out tossing her head and spills all the milk. On confessing what has happened to her mother she is told, “Ah my child, you should not have counted your chickens before they were hatched.”

The heroine of the French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine‘s retelling (Book 7.x) is called Perrette and upsets the pail while imitating the leaping of a calf that comes to her in the train of a long history of transactions.[2] The bronze fountain figure by the Russian artist Pavel Sokolov (1765–1831), known as “The Milkmaid of Tsarskoe Selo” and now in a St Petersburg museum, was inspired by this poem[3]. An earlier version of the story is given in Don Juan Manuel‘s 1335 Tales of Count Lucanor, one of the earliest works of prose in Castilian Spanish[4]

A rather different story with the same kind of moral appears in the early Indian Panchatantra as “The Tale of the Broken Pot”. In this a poorman daydreams about the wealth that will flow from selling a pot of rice he has been given, progressing through a series of sales of animals similar to Perette’s, until he has enough to support a wife and family. The child misbehaves, his wife takes no heed, so he kicks her and in doing so upsets the pot that was to make his fortune. Other variants include Bidpai‘s “The Poorman and the Flask of Oil”[5], “The Barber’s Tale of his Fifth Brother” from The 1001 Nights and the Jewish story of “The Dervish and the Honey Jar”.[6]

Meaning of the phrase

‘Counting your chickens before they’re hatched’ has been described in recent years as “a proverb cliché, still very commonly used, as a warning to people not to put faith in things which they don’t yet have”.[7] As advice, it is repeated in books about jobseeking[8] and dating.[9]

There are differing points of view about its usage, whether as something that “your child needs to know”[10] or one of many “abused phrases you should never use”[11], with an author observing that “many people who have never seen a farm, let alone a chicken farm, are spitting out the phrase”.[12]

The Spanish equivalent of the phrase is No hay que vender la piel del oso antes de cazarlo[13] and the French is Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué;[14] both translate as “Don’t sell the bear’s skin before you hunt it”. This relates to other folktale variants, such as the Swedish tale of a boy who comes on a fox asleep in the forest. He is going to kill it, sell the skin and put his earnings to good use but, in acting out his fantasy, wakes the fox – which runs away with his rosy future. The French (and the English) call this sort of activity Building castles in Spain, which is the phrase La Fontaine uses in drawing the moral of his fable.


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