Silly Poems and Rhymes # 24

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each of his wives had seven sacks,
Each of the sacks held seven cats,
Each of the cats had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

All potential answers to this riddle are based on its ambiguity because the riddle only tells us the group has been "met" on the journey to St. Ives and gives no further information. As such, any one of the following answers is plausible, depending on the intention of the other party:

  • If the narrator met the group as they are coming from St. Ives (this is the most common assumption), the answer would be one person going to St. Ives; the narrator.
  • If the narrator met the group as they were also travelling to St. Ives (and were overtaken by the narrator, plausible given the large size of the party), the answer in this case is all are going to St. Ives; see below for the mathematical answer.
  • It is also never positively established if the group is going to or from St. Ives, they could be going elsewhere, or nowhere at all; perhaps they are just by the road side. This would still give the answer of one, the narrator, because we know from his narration he is definitely going to St. Ives.
  • However, it has been suggested the answer is zero on the assumption that the question means how many "kits, cats, sacks, wives ... were going to St. Ives?" Although the narrator clearly states he is going to St. Ives, he is not one of the kits, cats, sacks, or wives. And so, by this interpretation, the answer is zero.

The mathematical answer to the total number of people, sacks, and felines involved, is 2,802, calculated as follows:

  • Narrator: 1
  • The man whom he met: 1
  • Wives: 7
  • Sacks: 49 (7 wives times 7 sacks per wife)
  • Adult cats: 343 (49 sacks times 7 cats per sack)
  • Kittens: 2,401 (343 cats times 7 kittens per cat)

Mad magazine published the following parody:

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives,
Of course, the seven wives weren't his
But here in France, that's how it is.