Aesop is Still Relevant

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A MONKEY perched upon a lofty tree saw some Fishermen casting their nets into a river, and narrowly watched their proceedings. The Fishermen after a while gave up fishing, and on going home to dinner left their nets upon the bank. The Monkey, who is the most imitative of animals, descended from the treetop and endeavored to do as they had done. Having handled the net, he threw it into the river, but became tangled in the meshes and drowned. With his last breath he said to himself, “I am rightly served; for what business had I who had never handled a net to try and catch fish?’
This fable shows that by meddling in affairs one doesn’t understand, not only does one gain nothing, but one also does oneself harm.

Aesop's FablesNo, I’m not writing fables for council now, although you’d think it was tailor made for the current group at the table. Most of them, anyway. It comes from a website dedicated to fables (www.aesopfables.com), but the moral at the end comes from a recently-acquired Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998). In the book, it’s fable number 304.*

The site offers many more, but I don’t know how many are actually Aesop’s originally, or later additions. Collaters and editors, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were apparently somewhat liberal when building their collections and included much extraneous material. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it also preserved material which might have otherwise been lost.**

The introduction to that book taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Aesop and his famous fables was wrong. And that many of the stories what I had thought were his weren’t – they were plagiarized from other authors or other traditions. And even those that were Aesop’s had often been rewritten and bowdlerized for Victorian sensibilities. Yet one can recognize the iconic fables within the originals.

What surprised me most is that the originals are bawdier, and often more violent (there’s a lot of death) and sometimes misogynistic. Despite what happened to them in later years, they weren’t meant for children.

There are 358 fables from the Greek in this edition, each one annotated with the appended moral and some notes to clarify the content. I was also surprised to learn the morals – the epimythia – were not part of the original stories, but rather added later by editors and copyists when categorizing or explaining the tale for later audiences. The fables were, it seems, more like anecdotes for contemporary orators and partygoers, sort of like those books of stock stories and jokes for public speakers. No homilies to teach children good behaviour.

The Penguin website describes the book thus:

In a series of pithy, amusing vignettes, Aesop created a vivid cast of characters to demonstrate different aspects of human nature. Here we see a wily fox outwitted by a quick-thinking cicada, a tortoise triumphing over a self-confident hare and a fable-teller named Aesop silencing those who mock him. Each jewel-like fable provides a warning about the consequences of wrong-doing, as well as offering a glimpse into the everyday lives of Ancient Greeks.

Pithy for sure, although some of the “morals” are a bit murky. Still, reading these fables – many of them more violent and gruesome than I recall reading in my youth – I find they are still relevant today.

So many can be read and applied to contemporary events and politics. I suppose history repeats itself and human foibles are the same throughout time. For example, think of the many, many closed-door meetings of council where they discussed issues that everyone else, including our neighbouring communities and our own airport service board, even the local media, discussed in the open, when you read no. 15:

A GOATHERD had sought to bring back a stray goat to his flock. He whistled and sounded his horn in vain; the straggler paid no attention to the summons. At last the Goatherd threw a stone, and breaking its horn, begged the Goat not to tell his master. The Goat replied, “Why, you silly fellow, the horn will speak though I be silent.”
Do not attempt to hide things which cannot be hid.

Fits , doesn’t it? Here’s one from the book (no. 80) I couldn’t find on the website (in part because they are translated from the Latin, not the Greek, so some words may change), titled The Ploughman and the Dog:

A ploughman was confined to his small farm due to bad weather, and was unable to go out and find some food. So first he ate his sheep, and as the bad weather persisted, he next ate his goats. Eventually, as there was no respite, he turned to his oxen. Seeing this, the farm dogs said to one another: “We better get out of here, for if the master eats the oxen who work with him, we’re next!”
This fable shows that you should be extra careful of people who are not afraid to harm those closest to them.

Another fit, if you think of council’s relentless destruction of our water utility, our airport, our relations with our neighbours, and now our hydro utility and the once-terrific and mutually-respected partnership with Powerstream. Once they destroy that, who will they turn on next?

In no. 119, Zeus and the Fox, it tells a fable that might reflect how the two renegade members made fools of themselves and the community by sending out their own media releases, pretending they were from the town:

Zeus, king of the gods, marvelling at the fox’s intelligence and flexibility of spirit, conferred upon him the kingship of beasts. However, Zeus also wanted to know if in changing his status, the fox had also changed his habits of covetousness. While the fox was passing by in a palanquin, Zeus released a beetle. Seeing it flit around his palanquin, unable to contain himself, the fox leapt out and, in defiance of all propriety and decorum, chased it. All the other gods laughed at the fox. Zeus, indignant at this behaviour, placed the fox back in its former, humble state.
This fable shows that those who come from nothing, though they may seem brilliant on the outside, do not change their inner nature.

Then there’s the fable of the The Ass and his Purchaser (no. 263) which could apply to the voting bloc on council, the ideological bobbleheads who all put up their hands when one does, even when commonsense and reason – and the greater good of the community – would suggest that they vote against a motion:

A man who wanted to buy an Ass went to market, and, coming across a likely-looking beast, arranged with the owner that he should be allowed to take him home on trial to see what he was like. When he reached home, he put him into his stable along with the other asses.
The newcomer took a look round, and immediately went and chose a place next to the laziest and greediest beast in the stable. When the master saw this he put a halter on him at once, and led him off and handed him over to his owner again. The latter was a good deal surprised to seem him back so soon, and said, “Why, do you mean to say you have tested him already?”
“I don’t want to put him through any more tests,” replied the other. “I could see what sort of beast he is from the companion he chose for himself.”
Moral: A man is known by the company he keeps.

So many stories, so many fitting morals and so many relevant to this council. Of course, the problem with fables is that we generally learn the morals after we’ve engaged in the activities that relate to them. Saying “I told you so” through fables doesn’t change the situation or the mess we’re in these days.

Still, it’s worth reading Aesop if you haven’t done so in your adult life, because there’s so much wisdom in his words and so many still relate to us, today.

~~~~~
* The number depends on the source. This book is based on the Chambry collection, but the same fable will have a different number using another editor’s system. These include Perry, Gibbs, L’Estrange and Townsend. Chambry’s is Greek, the rest are English translations. However, this site suggests that the Perry numbering system is preferred by scholars. Aesop’s fables have been published in English since Caxton’s edition of 1485.

** There are more than 4,000 fables from Aesop and many other sources here: aesopus.pbworks.com However, many of them are in Latin… for alternate English translations of Aesop (including Gibbs, whose book I also recently ordered after reading her website), see: www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/index.htm.

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3 Replies to “Aesop is Still Relevant”

  1. New book: I spent last night reading fables from Laura Gibbs’ translation of Aesop’s fables (Oxford University Press, arrived this week) and I am even more impressed with her work. It has 600 fables, it has an index, the fables are collected into categories… overall a much better, more professional. more comprehensive work than the Temples’. Some of the fables remind me of the Nasrudin tales, too. One day I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison.

    http://www.oupcanada.com/catalog/9780199540754.html

  2. I was struck by how remarkably well another fable – found in Aristotle, Phaedrus and Aesop – suits the town’s political situation. There are many variations on this one; in Aesop the wild boar is replaced by a stag, and sometimes, depending on translator, the hunter is simply called “a man” or just “man.” But the moral is still the same. Here’s a version that will show what I mean:

    A wild boar had taken to rolling in a stream where a horse liked to drink, turning the water muddy. The horse felt it was his meadow and his stream, and resented the intrusion. So the horse approached a Hunter to ask his help to take revenge on the boar.

    The Hunter agreed, but said: “If you desire to conquer the boar, you must permit me to place this piece of iron between your jaws, so that I may guide you with these reins, and allow this saddle to be placed upon your back so that I may keep steady upon you as we follow after the enemy.”

    The Horse agreed to the conditions, and the Hunter soon saddled and bridled him. Then with the aid of the Hunter, the Horse soon overcame the boar, and chased it away from the field.

    The Horse said to the Hunter: “Now, get off, and remove those things from my mouth and back.”

    “Not so fast, friend,” said the Hunter. “I have now got you under bit and spur, and prefer to keep you as you are at present.”

    The moral of Aesop’s fable is: If you allow men to use you for your own purposes, they will use you for theirs.

    Gibbs (Oxford U. press) translates this (no. 47) as:

    There was a horse who was the sole owner of a meadow. Then a stag came and wreaked havoc in the meadow. The horse wanted to get revenge, so he asked a certain man if he would help him carry out a vendetta against the stag. The man agreed, provided that the horse took the bit in his mouth so that the man could ride him, wielding his javelin. The horse consented, and the man climbed on his back but instead of getting his revenge, the horse simply became a slave to the man.

    The moral in the Penguin (Temples’) edition (no. 328) is: Blind rage makes many people wreak vengeance on their enemies, thereby throwing themselves under the yoke of other people’s power.

    I see this allegory peopled thusly: the horse is the six-person (seven?) bloc on council; the boar/stag is a group of former council members and their supporters/friends or employers, and the hunter is the town’s CAO. Fits if you look at it that way, doesn’t it?

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