"Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth"

Hello, and welcome to the September 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. After last month's somewhat theoretical discussion, I thought it might be interesting to undertake a straightforward exploration of a Japanese folktale and discuss the ways it employs structural symmetry in storytelling. Let's start by taking a look at that tale, titled "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth."

"Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth"

Long, long ago an honest old man and an evil old man lived as neighbours.

One time, just as the year was drawing to a close, they happened to meet on the road, and the honest old man said, "When the new year comes, let us each try to have a dream which will come true." The other old man readily consented. They agreed to meet again to tell one another their dreams, then went home.

On the third day of the new year, the honest old man and the evil old man again met on the road. "Did you have a dream last night?" asked the evil old man.

"Yes, I did," replied the honest old man.

"I had a very strange dream," said the other.

"I dreamed that luck came to me from heaven," said the honest old man.

"I dreamed that luck came to me from the earth," said the evil old man.

"Well, they were both good dreams," they said and returned home.

Several days after this, the honest old man said to himself, "Today the weather is so warm that I think I will make a third planting of beans," and he went out to prepare the field. As he was digging up the ground, his hoe made a clanging sound as though it had hit a stone. "This is strange," he said; "there shouldn't be any stones here." He dug the stone out and saw that a jar was buried beneath it. "Ah, I've found a jar," he said. He lifted the lid and was much surprised to see that it was full of glittering oban and koban coins. "This surely must be the lucky thing which the neighboring old man dreamed that he was to receive from the earth. I must hurry over and tell him," and stopping his work, he went over to his neighbor's house.

"Grandfather, I've found the lucky thing that you were to receive from the earth, hurry and get it." He told him how to find it, then returned home.

When he got home, he told his wife what he had done. "The neighboring old man was very happy to hear about what I found," he said. "He has probably already dug up the money and carried it home by now."

"You did a very honorable thing to tell him about it," said his wife. "Come, let's sit by the fireplace where it's warm." So they sat by the fireplace and talked for a while.

The evil old man joyfully hurried out to the field where the jar was buried. Sure enough there was the place where the earth had been dug up, and he soon found the buried jar. "This jar is full of oban and koban coins," he thought to himself, and lifting the lid, he looked inside, but instead of oban and koban coins, it was full of writhing snakes.

"What a contemptible trick that filthy old man has played on me," he cried, blazing into anger. "Well, this time, I'll give him a surprise," and he put the jar on his back and went home.

Taking a ladder from his home, the evil old man went over to his neighbor's house and climbed up on the roof. He looked down through the smoke vent. There he saw the honest old man lying beside the fireplace warming his back.

"There he is; he played a dirty trick on me, and now he's lying there warming his back!" The evil old man got more and more angry, and, taking the lid from the jar, poured the contents out upon the head of the old man below. However, instead of snakes, real oban and koban coins fell everywhere into the room where the old man and his wife were.

"Look, old woman," cried the honest old man, "The neighboring old man received luck from the earth and now we are receiving luck from heaven," and they were filled with rejoicing. And so the dream he had had on the second day of the new year had come true, and they became very, very wealthy.1


I'll begin my analysis by admitting that my knowledge of Japanese folk narrative scholarship is limited, and the texts I use to classify folk narratives for you have an imperfect grasp of "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth." As I mentioned in my "Introduction to the ATU Tale Types", Hans-Jörg Uther endeavoured to internationalize the tale type catalog by adding non-European tales, and his work made an important contribution to scholarship. However, the motif and tale type indexes are fundamentally Eurocentric in the way they approach folktale classification, and sometimes it shows. Still, I think it's important to bring you tales from outside Europe whenever possible, and our example tale is a great foundation for discussions about structural symmetry in folk narrative. So I'm going to present the index information I have, point out a few flaws, and then offer you a short introduction to Japanese folktale scholarship from my research for this month's work.

There are three motifs associated with "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth," and these are:

  1. N182 Snake turns to gold in answer to dream. Woman tells dream of pot of gold. Robbers overhear but finding only snake in pot turn it loose upon woman's bed. It turns to gold.2
  2. N531 Treasure discovered through dream.3
  3. D1454 Parts of human body furnish treasure.4

The ATU index classifies "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth" as a Religious Tale under 834 The Poor Brother's Treasure. This miscellaneous type contains tales that feature the phrase "God determines" or "God will care for all." In it, one person tells another about a dream that specifies the place where a treasure is buried. The second person tries to dig up the treasure but finds something unpleasant instead (a dead animal, snakes, a pot of dung, etc.). Believing the first person lied, the second person tosses the unpleasant thing into the first person's home, whereupon it turns into money.5

I'm not concerned that N182 gives us a woman who dreams of gold and robbers who overhear the telling of that dream, because the bones of the motif match what we've read in this month's example. For the same reason, I'm not concerned about N531 and the treasure discovered through a dream. I have minor concerns about D1454, in which human body parts furnish treasure, but ATU tale types often feature motifs that don't fit all of the tales in the category. My strongest concerns lie with the tale type itself, which is categorized as religious and contains specific religious phrases. "Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth" follows the overall plot of the type but doesn't contain these phrases and isn't religious in the way the index intends. So its categorization strikes me as a bit forced.

Is this because the tale is different enough from its categorization schema that it can't be a good fit? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Folklore scholar Kunio Yanagita utilized the Japanese translation of Charlotte Burnes' Handbook of Folklore (a precursor to Aarne and Thompson's The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography) to develop a finding list for Japanese folk narratives. Some years later, Yanagita's student Hiroko Ikeda studied under Stith Thompson at Indiana University, examining over 2000 Japanese tales for her doctoral dissertation, A Type and Motif-Index of Japanese Folk-Literature. Ikeda determined that about 80 percent of the tales she studied could be matched to the Aarne-Thompson tale types, but folklore scholar Robert J. Adams writes that "Ikeda's tally seems high and is reached by a certain amount of persuasion, squeezing recalcitrant plots into the Aarne-Thompson slots."6 All of the information I've just provided is available in the Folktales of Japan foreword, which is worth a read for anyone looking to dive more deeply into Japanese folk narrative collection. What I hope you'll take away from this discussion though, is that while there are similarities in folk narratives around the world, their differences point to the need for careful, contextual scholarship and respect for the rich diversity of folktales outside Europe.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

"Luck from Heaven and Luck from the Earth" is a symmetrical tale that sets a foundation for symmetry in the title. The first sentence, "Long, long ago an honest old man and an evil old man lived as neighbours," reinforces that symmetry, and the tale proceeds from there to fulfill the expectations it sets. An honest old man digs up coins he believes should belong to his neighbour, tells the truth about what he has found, and is rewarded with wealth from heaven. Conversely, an evil old man finds snakes where his neighbour says coins should be, takes revenge by dumping them down the man's chimney, and receives nothing for his efforts. Here's a table that might better illustrate this symmetry for you:

Heaven Earth
Honest Old Man Evil Old Man
Finds Coins Finds Snakes
Tells the Truth Behaves Vengefully
Receives Wealth Receives Nothing

The structural symmetry itself is worth tucking into your storyteller's toolkit. Whether you're working with inner and outer, good and evil, day and night, science and mysticism, sweet and savoury, or some other dichotomy, it's good to make certain your oppositional elements properly mirror each other as they do in our example.

However, there are flaws in this sort of storytelling. First, perfect symmetry can create a predictable narrative. I knew what to expect out of this month's tale the moment I read the title, and the first sentence drove my expectations home. There were no surprises, no reversals, no twists of fate. This sort structured tale can be popular with audiences; after all, the pleasure of a good romance novel is taking a journey toward a happy ending. But it can also cause audiences to lose interest. Second, these dichotomies have been used time and again to create and reinforce stereotypes, as I discussed in June's dispatch and podcast, and we should be careful not to do the same.

Perhaps the better thing to do with the kind of structural symmetry our example provides is to create it and then break it open like an Oreo to find the cream filling of a stronger, more nuanced story inside. So let's change that table a bit and see what we find:

Heaven Earth
Kind Old Man Cunning Old Man
Finds Coins Finds Snakes
Tells the Truth Keeps the Snakes, Who Eat the Slugs in His Garden
Receives Nothing Receives an Excellent Harvest

At this point, I should confess that I'm pro-snake, adore the snakes in my garden, and think they get a bad rap in this tale, which is why I've changed it to benefit them. In my version, a kind old man finds coins he believes are the answer to his cunning neighbour's dream and tells him so. The cunning neighbour still finds snakes, but he needs them to eat the slugs in his garden. The cunning man has an excellent harvest, and the kind man receives nothing for his efforts. The moral? Snakes are awesome, and sometimes kindness gets you nothing. In breaking the symmetry of our example tale (and softening the characters a bit) I've given the snakes a happy ending and revealed an uncomfortable truth about life. As a result, the tale is more nuanced than its source material.

If you're working with a traditional folk narrative, it might help to set up a table of symmetries before you begin and decide what you want to keep and what you want to change. The same technique can work for an original story and help you outline as well. In both cases, I would argue that while symmetry can give a tale good scaffolding, breaking that symmetry gives it spice.


This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of the Old Norse poem, "Gylfaginning," featuring guest poet Math Jones.


Listen to the Folklore & Fiction podcast here:

SoundCloud Amazon Music Apple Podcasts Google PodcastsSpotify Stitcher YouTube


Folklore & Fiction Facebook Group and Subreddit

Are you a storyteller with an interest in folklore? Would you like to join the conversation about this edition of the dispatch and podcast? If so, the Folklore & Fiction Facebook group or the Folklore & Fiction subreddit might interest you.

  • 1. Keigo Seki, ed., Folktales of Japan, trans. Adams, Robert J. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 156-157.
  • 2. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 87.
  • 3. Thompson, 112.
  • 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 234.
  • 5. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011), 468
  • 6. Seki and Adams, vi-xi.