ancient origin of counting sheep to fall asleep

According to Disciplina Clericalis, a text written in early twelfth-century Spain from Islamic sources, a king every night heard stories from his storyteller. One night, the king, burdened with worries from the day’s business, did not feel like going to sleep. He demanded extra stories from his storyteller. But the storyteller himself wanted to go to sleep. The storyteller’s ingenious solution was to tell a story that required counting sheep.[1]

A farmer went to market and bought two thousand sheep. Returning home, he found his way blocked by a flood-swollen river. Along the shore was a small boat that could carry only two sheep across at a time. The farmer put two sheep into the boat and crossed over. The farmer needed to do that a thousand times in order to get all his sheep home.

According to Disciplina Clericalis, the storyteller fell asleep after stating that the farmer put the first two sheep into the boat. The king woke the storyteller and demanded that he continue. The storyteller responded that the story required the farmer to transport all the sheep across the river.[2] This meta-story clearly depends on common understanding of the practice of counting sheep to fall asleep. The practice of counting sheep to fall asleep thus must have been well-known prior to the early twelfth century.

The early seventeenth-century Spanish text Don Quixote reworked the frame story for counting sheep. Traveling at night, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho heard the roaring of water and loud, frightening, rhythmic banging of fetters and chains. Deluded with romantic fantasies of chivalry, Don Quixote was determined to risk death by approaching the noise. Sancho forestalled that action by hobbling Quixote’s horse. Quixote reluctantly resolved to wait vigilantly until dawn. Sancho helpfully told Quixote:

I’ll entertain your grace by telling stories the whole time, unless you want to dismount and stretch out for a little sleep, here on the green grass, the way knights errant do, so you can be better rested when day comes, and more fit for this unheard-of adventure that awaits you. [3]

Quixote angrily responded:

Am I, by any chance, one of those knights who look for rest when danger faces them? You sleep, since that’s what you were born for, or do whatever you want to, and I will do what best suits me.

Sancho began to tell a long-winded variant of the sheep story in Disciplina Clericalis. In Sancho’s version, a shepherd had three hundred goats that he had to transport across a river. The shepherd had to take the goats across one by one. Sancho explained:

you’d better keep track of how many goats the shepherd carries across, your grace, because if we forget a single one that will be the end of the story, and it won’t be possible to tell another word.

Quixote urged Sancho to assume all the goats were carried across, and get on with the story. Sancho then asked Quixote how many goats had already been carried across. Quixote didn’t know. Sancho then declared that the story had ended. Quixote responded:

you’ve told one of the most novel tales, or stories, or histories, anyone in the world has ever thought of, and the way you told it, and then ended it, is something never to be seen, and never ever seen, in the course of a lifetime, though I expected nothing less from your remarkable powers of reasoning. On the other hand, I’m not surprised, for conceivably this banging, which has never stopped, has troubled your brain.

That’s layers of nonsense built upon ridiculousness. Disciplina Clericalis was a highly popular work across Europe. Spanish readers most likely knew the tale of counting sheep. About five centuries after Disciplina Clericalis was written, the counting-sheep story had a novel ending in Don Quixote. That novel ending was in counting goat-sheep not being allowed to produce sleep.

when counting sheep, count this one

The animating spirit of Don Quixote’s evaluation of counting sheep continues in recent scientific work and associated story-telling. On January 24, 2002, news sources around the world reported news about counting sheep. In Britain, a story in The Guardian declared in its headline: “Trouble Sleeping? Don’t Count on Sheep.” The story reported:

New Scientist reports today that Allison Harvey, a cognitive psychologist at Oxford University, tested that classic recipe for numbing thought and quelling anxiety: counting sheep. She and a colleague divided 50 volunteer insomniacs into three groups, proposed a strategy for each and monitored the rates at which eyelids closed and breathing became regular.

One group was asked to concentrate on a distraction such as counting Southdown ewes in a field, or Merino lambs hopping over a stile. One group was left to its own devices. And one was asked to focus on a tranquil and relaxing suite of thoughts, such as a waterfall, or being on holiday.

Those who imagined torpid afternoons in the south of France, or lazy twilights in the Tyrol, went to sleep on average 20 minutes earlier than they would normally do on nights when they were not concentrating on faraway places. The sheep counters – and the ones who just lay there, wishing they could nod off – actually stayed awake for longer than their normal ration of restlessness.

“Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” Dr Harvey said.

The story in BBC News was titled “Sheep counting is tired technique.” That story reported:

The idea that you can nod off while imagining the woolly animals jumping through a hedge has been around for years, but scientists who have tested it on volunteers say other strategies are likely to be more effective.

Thinking about a calming waterfall or a tranquil beach was more likely to induce sleep, Allison Harvey, from Oxford University, UK, told New Scientist magazine. …

Harvey and a colleague took 50 insomniacs and asked them to use different techniques to get off to sleep.

Some were told to count those sheep; others to imagine a relaxing scene; and a third group was left to its own devices.

On average, those picturing a calming scene fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than on nights they did not try the technique. But both the sheep-counters and the controls took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment. “Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” Harvey said.

The source article in the New Scientist, published the previous day, was entitled “Sleep scientists discount sheep.” The New Scientist article reported:

Harvey and her colleague Suzanna Payne asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on certain nights, to see which helped them fall asleep more quickly. One group conjured up a tranquil and relaxing scene such as a waterfall or being on holiday, while a second were asked to think of a distraction such as counting sheep. A third group were left to their own devices.

On average, those picturing a relaxing scene fell asleep over 20 minutes earlier than on nights they didn’t try the technique. But both the sheep-counters and the controls took slightly longer than normal to fall asleep on the nights of the experiment. “Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away,” says Harvey.

The scholarly article that these three news articles referenced doesn’t actually mention sheep. The scholarly article states:

The “general distraction” group were told that during the pre-sleep period they should simply distract from thoughts, worries and concerns. No guidance was given as to a specific strategy that should be used to distract. …

Participants in the “general distraction” group thought through events that happened today (n=6), counted (n=2), meditated (n=2), subvocally hummed a favourite tune (n=1), blanked their mind whenever an unpleasant thought occurred (n=2), or focused on body relaxation (n=1). [4]

The “general distraction” group is the group that the news sources reported as “sheep-counters.” Yet only two of the fourteen tested insomniacs in that group counted, and those two did not necessarily count sheep. If you literally believed what was reported in the scientific news articles in The Guardian, BBC News, and the New Scientist, you might as well believe what is written in medieval chivalric romances.[5]

Medieval history is more meaningful than contemporary science journalism. Counting sheep for falling asleep has the authority of being, for at least a millennium, a widely recognized human practice. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try counting sheep. That would be low-cost scientific work potentially offering significant results for you.

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[1] Petro Alfonsi, Disciplina Clericus, Sec. XII, from Latin trans. Hermes & Quarrie (1977) pp. 123-4. In Disciplina Clericus, the story of the king and the storyteller itself occurs within a frame of a pupil asking a master-teacher for stories about women’s guile.

[2] A similar story exists in the Cento Novelle Antiche, an Italian compilation of short stories from the end of the 13th century. In the Cento Novelle Antiche version, the storyteller urges the patron to imagine the sheep crossing “so that in the meantime you could sleep well at ease.” Novella XXXI. For the Italian text, see Novelle italiane dalle origini al cinquecento, a cura di Goffredo Bellonci, pp. 9-10. An English translation is available at Elfinspell, mislabeled correctly labeled as “Novella XXX” for its source text. Different source texts have different numberings.

[3] Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, vol. 1, ch. 20, from Spanish trans. Raffel (1999) p. 112. Subsequent quotes from Don Quixote are from id., pp. 112, 114, and 114. A version of the story exists in Avellaneda’s continuation of Don Quixote. There the connection of the story to falling asleep is more distanced. See Yardley (1794) Bk. 3, Ch. V, p. 84.

[4] Harvey & Payne (2002) pp. 270-1.

[5] The common text across all three news articles suggests a lightly rewritten press release. The medieval stories of counting sheep show more creative story-telling. All three modern scientific-journalism articles refer to 50 insomniacs. The final sample studied actually consisted of 41 insomniacs. Harvey & Payne (2002) p. 271. That’s undoubtedly a trivial number relative to the total number of persons who have tried counting sheep to fall asleep throughout history.

[image] Lundy Sheep. Photograph thanks to Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons.


Harvey, Allison G., and Suzanna Payne. 2002. “The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction.” Behaviour Research and Therapy. 40 (3): 267-277.

Hermes, Eberhard and P. R. Quarrie, ed. and trans. 1977. Petrus Alfonsi. The Disciplina clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Raffel, Burton, trans. and Diana de Armas Wilson, ed.. 1999. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Don Quijote. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Yardley, William Augustus, trans. 1784. Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. A continuation of the history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha. London: Printed for Harrison and Co.

COB-86: ancient bureaucratic wisdom

primary designer of COBOL

Innovation is a fashionable buzzword bandied about by anti-bureaucrats these days.  Don’t be deceived.  The Standard Blue Book of Bureaucratic Procedures and Practices (22nd ed., 1986) begins with bureaucratic wisdom from about 2300 years ago:

What has been is what will be
and what has been done is what will be done
and there is nothing new under the sun

Innovation is unimportant.  The challenge with any new piece of bureaucratic work is to figure out what past work it’s like.  Then you do is what has been done.  Say you have a problem with the Internet’s operating system.  Yup, that’s like that problem we fixed with the file system in the TRS-80.  Add an exception check and an extra rewrite module.  Have you heard about the Go programming language and node.js?  They’ve just variants on COBOL.  A smartphone is a kind of telephone that persons use mainly to do things other than talk with people.  It all makes sense when you understand common law and wisdom: there is nothing new under the sun.

In other bureaucrat issues this month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who received a prestigious Bureaucrat of the Month Award, has announced his retirement. In internal email published on Microsoft’s website, Ballmer stated:

This is a time of important transformation for Microsoft. … Our new organization, which is centered on functions and engineering areas, is right for the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Re-orgs are fundamental achievements of bureaucratic management.  Some companies like Amazon foolishly seek to please customers.  In his email, Ballmer reiterated again another time for emphasis his bureaucratic focus: “I love this company.”

Researchers at the University of Washington have demonstrated a human brain-to-brain interface.  A challenge in running a bureaucracy is to hire and train workers who do exactly what their managers tell them to do.  A human brain-to-brain interface could facilitate bureaucratic management by having the manager directly control the brains of subordinates.

Oren Hazi provides an amazing, real-world example of the power of bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy isn’t sensational, dramatic, and high-profile.  But it grinds on and gets jobs done that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished.  Hazi explains:

This is how we lose our rights. Not overnight in one fell swoop, but gradually, after getting worn down again and again, and after hundreds of mini-panic-attacks, and with ever-ratcheting procedural changes that effectively invalidate the assurances and safeguards that we’re given.

Bureaucracy isn’t unimportant, and it isn’t just dull.  Your fundamental rights depend on bureaucracy.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

parable of the sower in early Arabic life of Buddha

gain from the parable of the sower

An early Arabic life of Buddha includes an explicated parable of the sower similar to that in the Christian Gospels. This Arabic life of Buddha was probably written in the second half of the eighth century among Ismaili (followers of a branch of Shia Islam) in central Asia.  Its parable of the sower differs in details from the parable of the sower in the Gospels.  These differences indicate that the early Arabic life of Buddha was oriented toward a broad textual market for wisdom.

Wisdom literature typically doesn’t narrate specific details of ordinary life incidental to its point.  Wisdom literature addressed to elites tends to be abstract and difficult to understand (esoteric wisdom).  Wisdom literature for a broad market tends to be abstract and commonplace (proverbial wisdom). The Gospels are unusual in representing teachings of an exalted teacher in terms of herding sheep, tending a garden, fetching water, making bread, sweeping a house, lending money, and other ordinary human actions within the Gospels’ specific time and place.  By the eighth century, the Gospels were well-known in central Asia.  The Gospels were a remarkably successful literary innovation within the market for wisdom literature.[1]

The early Arabic life of Buddha made the parable of the sower even more realistic than it is in the Gospels.  Here’s the parable of the sower from the early Arabic life of Buddha:

The sower went out to sow with his good seed.  When he had filled his hand with some and he had dispersed it, part fell on the the edge of the road.  There the birds were quick to peck it.  Part fell on rock, where there were water, moisture, and mud.  It sprang up, but when it grew, its roots reached the dry layer of rock, and it died.  Part fell on land covered with thorns.  When it had grown up and was about to bear fruit, thorns choked it and made it die.  Finally, a small part fell into good, well-hoed soil.  It remained intact, grew, matured and prospered. [2]

Compared to the parable of the sower in the Gospels, this version adds the mimetic detail of the sower filling his hand with seed before sowing.  It describes birds pecking seeds on the edge of the road, rather than generically eating seed less realistically located on the road.  The description of the rock details water, moisture, and mud.  The good soil is “well-hoed.”  The Gospels end the parable of the sower with a numerological statement about the seed sown in good soil: it “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  The early Arabic life of Buddha omits this numerological statement.

Some textual differences are plausibly related to more general meaning of the parable of the sower.  In both versions, seed sown on rocky ground dies because it lacks roots in deep soil.  In the Gospel version, the seed dies when the sun rises and the seed becomes scorched.  These details resonate with general images and understanding of God, judgment, and punishment in ancient religions from Egypt to India.  The early Arabic life of the Buddha has the seed on the rock die more simply from lack of water.  The early Arabic life, however, adds the qualifier that the seed which the sower sows is “good” seed.  It also adds the qualifier that the seed sown in good soil is a “small” part of the seed sown.  The qualified object “good seed” suggest that other, bad seed is being sown.  It normatively implies a highly competitive wisdom market. The qualified description “small part” for the well-received seed suggest that only an elite receives good wisdom fruitfully.

The early Arabic life of Buddha explicates the parable of the sower more generally than do the Gospels.  Here’s the explicated parable of the sower from the Arabic life of Buddha:

The sower is the bearer of wisdom. The good seed is the good word.  That which falls on the wayside and the birds steal is that which is only just heard, and then forgotten. That which falls on the rocky ground, which is wet and then dry when roots reach the rock, that’s the listener who is good for a moment, when he hears it and his heart is ready, and it seizes his intelligence, but he does not hold it in his memory, his intention or his reason. That which grows and gets to the point of giving fruit, but thorns make it perish, is that which the listener retains and understands, but when it comes time for action, which is the fruit, lusts stifle it and make it perish. Finally, that which falls on good ground and remains intact, grows, matures and prospers is that which the eye perceives, the ear retains, the heart preserves, and is put into practice with firm resolution, following the act of taming lusts and purifying the heart of defilement. [3]

In the Arabic life of Buddha, the seed is wisdom, described generically as the good word.  In the Gospels, the seed is more specifically the word of God or the word of God’s kingdom.  The Arabic text eliminates the Gospels’ reference to the Evil One / Satan / the devil snatching away the seed sown on the path.  Following the theme of Buddha sutras, it makes the result depend more universally on internal, personal effects.  The Gospels associate thorns with tribulation or persecution.  In the Arabic life of Buddha, thorns are universal human lusts.  Compared to the Gospels, the Arabic life of Buddha elaborates further upon the good soil with universal human behavioral descriptions.  These differences help the Arabic text serve a much broader range of personal, political, and spiritual teachers than does the parable of the sower in the Gospels.

The treatment of the parable of the sower in the early Arabic life of Buddha is consistent with other evidence of a broadly competitive market for wisdom in ancient central Asia.  The sixth-century Persian royal physician Borzuya seems to have reworked material from Matthew’s Gospel in his autobiographical paratext associated with the Indian wisdom collected in Kalilah and Dimnah.  The Arabic life of Buddha incorporated the Indian “Man in the Well” parable from ibn al-Muqaffa’s Arabic text of Kalilah and Dimnah.[4]  It also incorporated the golden rule.  That probably came from Jewish-Christian texts via ibn al-Muqaffa’s Arabic text of Kalilah and Dimnah.[5]  An Arabic text probably from central Asia about the tenth century presents the words of a “learned, accomplished, worthy, keen, pious, and insightful man”:

He was Persian by breeding, Arabian by faith, a hanif by confession, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in lore, Christian in manner, Damascene in devotion, Greek in science, Indian in discernment, Sufi in intimations, regal in character, masterful in thought, and divine in awareness. [6]

That broad scope of personal excellence may have been similar to the early Arabic life of Buddha’s ambition for textual influence.

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[1]  The parable of the sower occurs as an explicated parable in the synoptic Gospels.  See Mark 4:3-8, 14-20; Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15.  The parable of the sower, without explication, also occurs in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, saying 9:

Behold, the sower came forth—he filled his hand, he threw.  Some indeed fell upon the road—the birds came, they gathered them.  Others fell on the bedrock—and they did not take root down into the soil, and did not sprout grain skyward.  And others fell among the thorns—they choked the seed, and the worm ate them. And others fell upon the good earth—and it produced good fruit up toward the sky, it bore 60-fold and 120-fold.

English translation from the Ecumenical Coptic Project’s Metalogos site.  Allegorical understanding of sowing seeds in relation to the quality of soil probably developed independently in many cultures after the development of agriculture.  Examples exist in ancient Indian literature.  For examples in English translation, see the Buddhist parable 57 in Burlingame (1922) Ch. X, pp. 180-1; and Mahabharata, vol. 11, Anusasana Parva, Ganguli (1884-96) p. 151.  Relative to the parable of the sower in the early Arabic life of Buddha, these Indian examples differ much more from the parable of the sower in the Gospels.  Gimaret (1971b), p. 117, states that the parable of the sower in the Gospels is “undoubtedly of Indian origin.”  That cannot be known.  Paternity of texts is more difficult to establish and less significant than the paternity of human beings.  Scholars are remarkably uninterested in ascertaining the facts about the latter.

[2] Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Bilauhar and Budasaf), from Arabic trans. into French, Gimaret (1971a).  The parable of the sower in the original Arabic and in modern French translation is given in Gimaret (1971b) pp. 111-2.  My translation of id. from modern French into English.

[3] Id., my translation into English.  The early ninth-century Georgian Christian translation of Bilauhar and Budasaf largely retained Bilauhar and Budasaf‘s version of the parable of the sower.  See Lang (1966) pp. 76-7.  The Greek translation made from the Georgian returned to the Gospels’ version of the parable.  See Woodward & Mattingly (1914) Sec. 6.

[4] Blois (1990) Ch. 5.

[5] Id.  The early Arabic life of Buddha presents the golden rule thus:

He {“the Creator”} is pleased that you would do to another that which you would like him to do to you, and that you would not do to another that which you would not like him to do to you — because in this is equality, and equality is pleasing to God.

From Arabic into modern French trans. Gimaret (1971a) p. 110, my translation into English, correcting an obvious misprint.  Gimaret (1971b) p. 131 gives the Arabic text, but not the French translation.  On the source, Blois (1990) pp. 36-7.

[6] Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, n. 22 (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, Epistle 22, “The Case of Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn”) ch. 42, from Arabic trans. Goodman & McGregor (2009) pp. 313-4.  A hanif is a person who lived before the advent of Islam and who followed the pure monotheism of Ibrahim.  The translation cited is based on a review of early manuscripts.  Other translations specify “East Persian” for “Persian” and “as pious as a Syrian monk” for “Damascene in devotion.”  Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ cites and quotes from Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf.  Gimaret (1971a) pp. 36-8.


Blois, François de. 1990. Burzōy’s voyage to India and the origin of the book of Kalīlah wa Dimnah. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Burlingame, Eugene Watson, trans. 1922. Buddhist parables. Translated from the original Pāli.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ganguli, Kisari Mohan, trans. 1884-96. The Mahabharata. Anusasana Parva. Calcutta: Bharata Press.

Gimaret, Daniel, ed. and trans. 1971a. Le Livre de Bilawhar et Būd̲āsf: selon la version arabe ismaélienne. Genève: Paris, Droz.

Gimaret, Daniel. 1971b. “Traces et parallèles du Kitab Bilawhar wa-Budasaf dans la tradition Arabe.” Bulletin d’études orientales. 24:97-133.

Goodman, Lenn Evan and Richard J. A. McGregor, ed. and trans. 2009. Ikhwan al-Safa.  Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. an Arabic critical edition and English translation of Epistle 22. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Lang, David Marshall, ed. and trans. 1966. The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Woodward, George Ratcliffe, and Harold Mattingly, trans. 1914. St. John Damascene: Barlaam and Ioasaph. London: W. Heinemann.