From Hendrik Willem van Loon's History of Mankind (published 1922), a version of the full quotation:

High in the North in a land called Svithjod there is a mountain.
It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high
and once every thousand years a little bird comes to this mountain to sharpen its beak.
When the mountain has thus been worn away a single day of eternity will have passed.

This quotation struck me when I saw it softlinked; for I had read it long ago, but not in Van Loon. There is a short fairy tale accredited to the Brothers Grimm entitled The Little Shepherd Boy, or just The Shepherd Boy (the German is Das Hirtenb├╝blein). As far as I know it was added to the collection in 1819, 63 years before Van Loon was born!

The story, only a page long, tells of a wise young boy who is challenged by a king to answer three questions. I include it here verbatim due to its brevity and euphony. This translation is by Jack Zipes; italics and softlinks are mine.

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a little shepherd boy who was famous far and wide for the wise answers he gave whenever anyone asked a question. The king of the country also heard about this, but he did not believe it and had the little boy summoned to his palace, where he said to him, "If you can answer three questions that I'm going to put to you, then I shall regard you as my own child, and you shall live with me in my royal palace."

The little boy responded, "What are the three questions?"

The king said, "The first one is, How many drops of water are in the ocean?"

The little shepherd boy answered, "Your Majesty, have all the rivers on the earth dammed up so that no more drops of water can flow into the ocean until I have finished counting them. Then I shall tell you how many drops of water are in the ocean."

Thereupon the king said, "My next question is, How many stars are in the sky?"

The little shepherd boy said, "Give me a large sheet of white paper," and he proceeded to make so many fine dots on it with a pen that they could hardly be seen and were almost impossible to count. One would have gone blind trying to do so. Then the boy spoke. "There are as many stars in the sky as there are dots on this paper. Just count them."

But nobody could, and the king said, "The third question is, How many seconds does eternity have?"

The little shepherd boy said, "The Diamond Mountain is in Lower Pomerania, and it takes an hour to climb it, an hour to go around it, and an hour to go down into it. Every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed."

Then the king spoke, "You have answered the three questions like a wise man, and from now on you shall live with me in my royal palace, and I shall regard you as my own child."

As it appears, the Diamond Mountain isn't quite as vast as the mountain in Svithjod, unless one normally climbs it at 100 mph, which is why it takes the bird an entire day of eternity to reduce it to dust instead of a mere second, even though it comes ten times more often. Ahem... what I meant to say is, just as Gaiman and Pratchett borrowed from earlier literature, so did van Loon as well as the Grimms. Looks like, as far as eternity is concerned, this one's been around for at least a nanosecond.

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