Nail Soup

I suppose you’ve all heard of the story about the old man making soup out of a stone? In Sweden, instead of a stone, there’s a nail. I’m not sure what the reason for this odd cultural difference is, but I suppose details in oral stories shift shape a lot as they get passed along the generations. It’s like that whispering game, but more slow and far-reaching. Apparently in Russia they have an axe instead, which just shows how awesome they are.

In any case, I think the nail seems to be a good metaphor for religion. Religion is one of the most prevailing cultural structures in our civilization. It seems to be an effective motivator for people to do things – be they good or bad. Religion has a memetical quality into it, it’s an idea that spreads like a virus, the success of the memes battling it out against each other. That it is a meme doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true or not, of course; many other ideas like political ideologies are memetical.

I often hear people say that while science is of course an invaluable tool for understanding the world, religion apparently has a lot to offer which the scientific, materialist peeps won’t understand. What is that, I ask? What does religion have to offer to our understanding? Nothing. It has no explanatory power. There are of course quite a few religious people who dispute this, but many religionists have given up the struggle against scientific knowledge, and instead started to focus on the sociological aspects. Religion, they argue, gives people hope. They give people meaning. They give people inspiration. But surely that is not something which is unique to religion? Me, and many nonreligious people have all those things. As a counter to this, I have gotten the response that while I can do that, not everybody can. They have me believe that without religion, they wouldn’t be able to have this hope. It all reminds me of the old, well-known folk tale:

Once upon a time there was a tramp walking through a deep forest. He made his living selling a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Now he was cold and tired and hungry and what was even worse, he had nothing left to sell. All he owned were the ragged clothes he wore and an old, bent nail.

When he came out of the forest he saw a little cottage, with smoke rising from the chimney. He knocked on the door, the door opened and a woman looked at him suspiciously.
– Please, could you be as good as to give a poor man shelter for the night, he asked.
– I know your kind, she said, if I let you in you won´t leave before you have eaten everything I have. And I tell you, I´m so poor I haven´t had a bite for three days. So you just go away!
But the tramp was a clever fellow, and the woman was so greedy that she immediately invited him when he said that of course he didn´t want to eat the little she had. On the contrary, he wanted her to share his evening meal.
– But first I want to see the food you say you want to share, she said.
– This is all I need, he said, and took an old, bent nail out of his pocket. Just bring me a pot and some water, and I´ll cook the best soup you ever tasted with this nail.
The woman brought a pot and looked with amazement as the tramp made a fire, cooked some water and dropped the nail in it.
– The soup might be a little thin, he said, you see I have been using the nail for seven days now. It is a pity you don´t have a little salt, that would surely make the soup taste like a soup fit for any gentleman´s house. But what we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. I might have a little salt left since Christmas.
– How lucky, said the tramp and put the salt in the pot. Well I was thinking that perhaps you could even serve this soup to the priest, if we only had some vegetables also. But what we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. I might have some vegetables in the cellar.
The tramp praised the wisdom of the woman and the excellent taste of the soup.
– I think it would even be fit to serve the king, if we only had a little meat to add, said the tramp. But there is no use longing for the impossible. What we lack, we don´t have.
– Now that I come to think of it, said the woman. There might be some dried meat left somewhere.
The tramp happily added the meat to the by now sweet-smelling soup, the woman made the table with her finest silver spoons and her best plates. When she came to think of it, there was actually some wine left since her husband´s funeral.

So she felt almost like a queen when they shared the soup the tramp had cooked with his nail. The next morning the tramp left without his nail, because the woman wouldn´t let him go before he agreed to sell it. And still to this day, the nail has been very useful. Not only can you make a wonderful soup, but you can also use it for cooking tales with. True, what we lack we don’t have, but if you add a little of this and a little of that it will certainly be a story fit for telling to a king!


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To put the nail in more concrete terms, we might instead call it a crutch. Because that’s what it is. People are of course entirely healthy and don’t need the crutch, but they feel they need the crutch, so they cling onto it. I say you don’t have to. You can pick up that crutch, and toss it aside, and walk with greater steadiness as well as more freely. Because I cannot believe that people would need it, I have higher hopes of humanity than that. I’m not asking you to stop having the head up in the clouds; but rather to stand with both feet firmly on the ground at the same time. The nail will only contaminate your soup.

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5 Responses to “Nail Soup”

  1. Blerd Says:

    Never thought of it that way.

  2. Fiona Says:

    “But surely that is not something which is unique to religion? Me, and many nonreligious people have all those things.”

    Excellent point, I do think “those things” have nothing to do with religion.

  3. randomdent Says:

    Aaaah I remember reading this story as a kid. I can’t remember if it used a stone or a nail. Definitely wasn’t an axe o.0

    But I do like your comparison with Religion. Very fitting.

  4. tusenpekpinnar Says:

    Good shit! Excellent comparison, and interesting to get to read the original story, don’t know if I ever heard it before..

    http://blogg.aftonbladet.se/lisamagnusson/2010/03/dagens-citat-115447502

  5. tusenpekpinnar Says:

    Ah, forgot: the link is for another clever comparison

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