“The Honest Woodsman”: A folk tale


My informant was particularly familiar with storytelling. They had this story prepared both in terms of content as well as delivery. Throughout the telling, they made gestures and motions to convey their thoughts.

“One sunny day, there was a woodsman. This woodsman was cutting down trees and collecting lumber so he could sell it to the people in his village. He was usually respected as a really honest man, and a really hardworking man. He was in this forest chopping down wood as per usual until he hit a particularly hard piece of wood. Out of shock, his hands let go and his axe flew back behind him into a river.”

The god Hermes saw this as the woodsman searched the river for his axe. Wanting to mess around for a little bit, Hermes decided to appear to him and say ‘Woodsman, I think I may have found your axe.’ He then showed the woodsman an axe made of solid gold. And Hermes said to him ‘Is this your axe?’ The woodsman said ‘No, that is not my axe.’ Hermes said ‘Oh, this must be a different axe’ and set it aside. Then he pulled out a silver axe, ‘Woodsman, is this your axe?’ And the woodsman said ‘No, that is not my axe.’ Hermes set that one to the side and showed him another one. ‘Is this your axe?’ He holds out a very plain, very battered axe with a wooden handle and iron tip. The woodsman says ‘Yes! That is my axe! I built it myself!’ Hermes, very impressed by his honestly, gave the woodsman all three axes for being such an honest person.”

The woodsman return to his village and shared the news. A competitor of the woodsman, a man who did not work so hard and was not known for being trustworthy, saw this and grew very jealous. The next day, this competitor went to a similar part of the woods and started cutting down trees behind pretending to drop his axe in the river behind him. So Hermes, seeing this again, appears and says ‘Hello, it seems you’ve lost your axe.’ The competitor said ‘Ah yes, I lost my axe! Do you, by any chance, know where it is?’ Hermes pulls out a golden axe and offers it to the competing woodsman. He asks, ‘Is this your axe?’ to which the competitor said ‘Yes, of course it is!'”

Hermes makes the golden axe disappear and actually takes the man’s own axe. The competitor said ‘That’s my own axe! I built it with my own hands and I use it for my livelihood. Hermes responded ‘A man who cannot be honest probably doesn’t make an honest living and should not make one at all.’ With that, Hermes leaves.”

The informant smiled. “The end.”


“I don’t know, it’s the story that’s stuck with me the most because when I was younger, I liked to read a lot of tales and fables. This is one that stuck out to me.”

“I had a book of Aesop’s Fables, so it was probably in that book,” they said, a bit unsure. “But seeing as all stories are the same and storytelling is very repetitive in its behavior, I probably heard it– or something like it– in a church setting since I was raised in Catholicism. The first time I heard the story the way I heard it was probably in that book.”

“It’s a pretty simple story– it’s a story of ‘tell the truth and you’ll get good things out of it.’ It’s mainly giving a moral, but because of the Greeks, it’s probably also used as a way of saying ‘The Gods giveth, the Gods taketh away.'”


“The Honest Woodsman”/”The Honest Woodcutter” story is one that I’ve come across in other cultures– specifically Japanese. I thought it was particularly interesting that the version I heard never had a competing woodsman who had an example made of them. In this version, I think it’s not only a lesson on being honest, but also a lesson on being a good person in general. This version makes sure to describe the competing woodsman as being not-hardworking, jealous, and greedy along with being dishonest. It’s this combination of negative traits that suggests there should be a punishment given to him as a moment of comeuppance.