Posts Tagged Riddles

St. Ives from an Outsider’s Perspective

I’m sure most, if not all of you have heard the St. Ives riddle.  To those who are the exception:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks.
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
how many were going to St. Ives?

I don’t have time to argue the math or the reasoning behind it, but it’s safe to say the answer is a number.  I’d imagine it somehow relates the questioner, a man, seven women, and 49 bags filled with 343 adult cats and 2401 kittens total.  (Evenly distributed into the sacks, of course.)

It bothers me that whoever is asking the question is so bloomin’ vague.  The fact that you can argue seventeen different answers (YOU were going to St. Ives!  2800 wives, sacks, cats, and kittens were going to St. Ives!  The St. Ives Bureau of Random Economic Statistics gives a figure of 48,439,000 incoming cat units for fiscal year 2007!) means the question itself needs work.

It seems to me the lack of specificity is a symptom of a much deeper problem, however.  And it’s not as if the questioner can’t be specific.  He or she is quite certain about the number of cats per bag.  In fact, the certainty about the contents of these undoubtedly massive sacks seems to imply that there was a conversation with these mysterious cat transporters:

“Hello, travelers, what’s up?”

“My seven wives and I are making our biweekly cat delivery.”

“Oh!  I can’t imagine any logistical or social problems arising in a career like that!   I myself am a dentist; the one out of five who never agrees with the others for plot-driven reasons that are never completely explained.  How many cats are in each bag?”

“These are sacks, my contentious dentist acquaintance.  There are 7 cats and 49 kittens in each sack.  How did you know the cats were in the sacks?”

“I must confess the hissing and shrieking as the sacks scraped along the ground gave your secret away.  Also, it says ‘CATS’ on the side.”

It begs the question why this person was talking to the cat people in the first place.  Do you have any idea how much feline biomass was packed into those containers?  A reasonable weight for an adult cat is approximately 10 pounds.  Given seven sacks per wife and 7 cats per bag, we have a total of 490 pounds of Adult Cat Weight alone.

Clearly, these women are not to be trifled with.

But we aren’t finished.  Now for the kittens.  While we aren’t given the exact location of St. Ives, (I suspect it’s Utah) in America they seem to suggest splitting cat families no earlier than ten weeks, an age that would give the kittens a weight of somewhere around two pounds each.  Of course, the people we’re talking about don’t seem to be the type to follow reasonable suggestions, but I imagine any cat rancher would rather not spend more money on cat food than is necessary, and would likely sell the cats at this time.  (If these people were ranching said cats and kittens to be used as food, it’s possible age isn’t a factor to them at all.  I find this somewhat absurd, even by polygamist cat-rancher standards.)

343 kittens per woman at 2 pounds each gives us 686 pounds of Kitten Weight.
490 lbs. ACW
+ 686 lbs. KW= 1176 pounds of cats per wife.

To put that in perspective, these women are lugging around a third of a Buick over their shoulders, except instead of hauling harmless, relatively inert hunks of automobile, they’ve packed 56 cats into a cramped space, and they’ve done it seven times over.  Each.

I have a hard time imagining two cats shoved into a bag together for any length of time.  Shoot, even one cat.

Of course, it is nowhere stated that the cats are alive…
Take out one of the logistical problems and suddenly the riddle becomes ever so much more disturbing.  Assuming the police are not eaten for sustenance by the Seven Strongest Women on Earth, I can see the headlines:

POLYGAMIST CAT-RANCHERS CAUGHT WITH 2744 DEAD CATS ON WAY TO ST. IVES FROM ST. IVES CRAP I DON’T EVEN KNOW

If you meet this walking catastrophe on the way to town and your only concern is mathematics, your garden is most likely short a few vegetables.

…Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
Don’t bother with math, just flee for your lives.

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