Once upon a time, after the war with Napoleon, three honest soldiers were wending their way home through Europe. The people who lived in the area through which they were travelling had been plundered and ravaged by armies passing through, repeatedly advancing and retreating. And so they were not inclined to be very hospitable to the three soldiers, even though they were honest and peaceful, and had fought on the side of Right.
The soldiers arrived in a small town one evening, and set up a bivouac under a tree in the town square. They lit a fire to keep them warm. As people passed they asked if anyone could spare a few morsels of food for three hungry soldiers. Everyone told them that there was not a scrap of food left in the area, as a result of the war, and the devastation it had caused to their crops, not to mention the constant commandeering and stealing of their livestock and stored foods by passing armies. The villagers claimed to be hungry too. They said they had nothing even with which to feed themselves and their families, and so could not spare food for three strangers.
“There’s nothing left here to eat ” they said. “Sleep the night and move on in the morning”.
“It doesn’t matter,” one of the soldiers said. “We can feed you, if things are as you say. We have with us a magic stone that has sustained us all through the war, and will feed us until we get home. I shall make some stone soup to share with you all.”
He took a large iron cauldron which two of his companions had carried between them, and placed it over the fire they had lit. He half filled it with water from the well in the town square.
Then, with a flourish he produced from a pocket of his greatcoat an ordinary-looking black stone, the size of a large potato, oval and slightly flattened and worn smooth by years in a river. He said, “Magic stone, magic stone, magic stone – nourish us”, and carefully placed it in the pot.
The rumour of magic, and food, spread through the village, and many villagers came to watch. The soldier stirred his stone consomme, and sniffed the rapidly heating water, licking his lips with anticipation.
“I do love a bowl good stone soup” said one of the other soldiers. “but I have to confess that the same thing every day, even if it is as good as this, makes me long for something just a little different now and then. I would like to have a different flavour for a change. If only we had some cabbage to throw in”.
The other soldier said “or a carrot or two perhaps…”
The first soldier nodded, still stirring, and said ” I always think an onion or two always adds a little something to a good soup. Nevertheless, we can be glad we have the stone. Many don’t even have that”.
Some of the villagers slipped away and returned shortly with a few carrots, a couple of onions and half a cabbage. The soldier accepted them gratefully and chopped them up with his knife, tossing them in to the stone soup.
One of the soldiers then said “My old grandma used to throw a ham bone into her cabbage soup. That was always a special treat”.
Soon a villager diffidently offered a ham bone, with a little meat still on it, that he mysteriously produced from somewhere. Into the pot it went.
And so the story goes.
The villagers were gradually persuaded to produce a few potatoes, some mushrooms, a few beans and so on and so forth, until at last the cauldron was indeed magically filled with a thick, delicious soup. Enough for all to share. The soldiers slept well with their hunger satisfied, and so did the villagers.
In some versions of the story, the villagers offered a lot of money to buy the stone from the soldier, and he sold it to them, for he could always get another at the next river. In other versions, being an honest man, he refused, and kindly told them that the stone was not really magic, except it had the property of persuading people to work together, contributing what little they have to help themselves and their neighbours.
Some say this is the true meaning behind the story of the loaves and fishes. I certainly think so. Getting people to share and cooperate is indeed a miracle. One that needs some skill to perform, but does not require any supernatural powers.