17 Elephants Or: How An Old Man Prevented A Couple Of Elephants From Being Slaughtered

indian elephant

Image: Wikimedia

This story originates from India.

A man died and left seventeen elephants to his three sons. His will said, “My eldest son gets half of my elephants, my middle son gets one-third, and my youngest son one-ninth of the seventeen elephants.”

However, there is no way you can divide seventeen elephants that way unless you cut up one of the elephants. Fortunately, though, a wise old friend had an idea. He lined up their seventeen elephants. Then he added one of his own — so they had eighteen elephants. Listen carefully!

Now it was easy — the eldest son got his half — nine elephants — the middle son got one-third of the eighteen, or six elephants — and the youngest son got one — ninth — two elephants. Add them up, you get seventeen. There was one elephant left.

The sons thanked the wise old man who said, “Now I can have my own elephant back.” And everyone was happy.

This may be both legally and mathematically incorrect but at least, no elephant was harmed!

Posted by

My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

22 thoughts on “17 Elephants Or: How An Old Man Prevented A Couple Of Elephants From Being Slaughtered

  1. I always wondered whether it was possible to create a solution to a similar problem as above, but with different numbers. In other words, find X such that the sum of X+1 divided by A, B, and C would equal X. Now in the classic problem above, A=2, B=3, and C=9. Is it possible to find X given *any* A, B, and C? Anyone want to take a stab at generalizing the solution in this manner? Would there have to be restrictions placed on A, B, and C so that X would turn out to be a whole number?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s an interesting question. This is similar with the Erdős–Straus conjecture which still baffles me to no end.

      Using a brute-force algorithm, I found seven solutions for this Diophantine equation (1/a + 1/b + 1/c = x/x+1) (taking into account the restrictions):

      7: 2,4,8
      11: 2,4,6
      11: 2,3,12
      17: 2,3,9
      19: 2,4,5
      23: 2,3,8,
      41: 2,3,7

      It appears that these are the only solutions.


      1. Fair enough; the results of your investigation then lead me to propose a new related problem with a cool solution:

        “Hey Mary,” said John. Yesterday I read about a cool problem on a blog called Fun Facts. It was about a man who died and gave fractions of his elephants to his three sons. A neighbor solved the problem by lending an elephant, and then taking it back at the end.”
        “Oh really?” said Mary. “How many elephants did he start with?”
        “I don’t know. I forgot.”
        “Well then, what fractions did the sons get?”
        “I don’t know. My memory is terrible; can’t remember that either.”
        “You’re hopeless, John.”
        “All I remember is that the next day the neighbor realized he had misread the will, and the fractions for each son were wrong. But he corrected himself, lent an elephant again, and it all worked out like before.”
        “”Oh,” said Mary. “Why didn’t you say that before? Now I know how many elephants the man had.”

        How many elephants, and how did Mary know?

        Of course, the solution to that is obvious once we look back at your list. But I think it’s a very good puzzle for those who have never seen your list.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Having 3 sons myself this seems a good ruse to keep them happy – apart from my lack of elephants. They all seem to get just over the 1/2, 1/3 and 1/9th. The fact that those fractions only add up to 17/18 ie less than 1 (the whole) doesn’t seem to bother them!


    1. I herd that ivoryone refused to talk about the elephant in the room so they all agreed with the compromise even if it’s mathematically and legally irrelephant. Hmm, perhaps, the old man who suggested the solution was seeing pink elephants…

      Liked by 4 people

What's On Your Mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s