Aesop's Fables

Week 4: Ancient Greece - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

If you think of fables as being basically about the distinction between "smart" and "stupid", then you can see how in a more general form the fables are about contests, about winners and losers. Sometimes this contest is a verbal contest: two characters boast about themselves, bragging how great they are and insulting their opponent. Other times it is a real contest: like the famous race between the tortoise and the hare. This particular story is still very popular today, and most people understand it as a story about how great the tortoise was - but in Aesop the emphasis is really on the character who is stupid: after all, if the hare had not been so stupid, he would have beat the tortoise in the race for sure. This same story is also found in many other cultures, and sometimes the tortoise actually relies on tricking the hare in order to win: if you want, take a look at this Cherokee version with the tricky turtle before you read the Aesop's fable here.


A man and a lion were arguing about who was best, with each one seeking evidence in support of his claim. They came to a tombstone on which a man was shown in the act of strangling a lion, and the man offered this picture as evidence. The lion then replied, 'It was a man who painted this; if a lion had painted it, you would instead see a lion strangling a man. But let's look at some real evidence instead.'
The lion then brought the man to the amphitheatre and showed him so he could see with his own eyes just how a lion strangles a man. The lion then concluded, 'A pretty picture is not proof: facts are the only real evidence!'
When the evidence is fairly weighed, a colourfully painted lie is quickly refuted by the facts.


A story about a reed and an oak, urging us not to rely on strength.
A reed got into an argument with an oak tree. The oak tree marvelled at her own strength, boasting that she could stand her own in a battle against the winds. Meanwhile, she condemned the reed for being weak, since he was naturally inclined to yield to every breeze. The wind then began to blow very fiercely. The oak tree was torn up by her roots and toppled over, while the reed was left bent but unharmed.
Those who adapt to the times will emerge unscathed.


The fir tree and the bramble bush were quarrelling with one another. The fir tree sang her own praises at length. 'I am beautiful and attractively tall. I grow straight up, a neighbour to the clouds. I am the hall's roof and the ship's keel. How can you compare yourself, you mere thorn, to such a tree as myself?'
The bramble bush then said to the tree, 'Just remember the axes which are always chopping away at you! Then even you can understand that it is better to be a bramble bush.'
A famous man has more glory than lesser people, but he is also exposed to greater dangers.


The peacock kept waving his golden feathers back and forth while he argued with the grey-winged crane. The crane finally exclaimed, 'You may make fun of the colour of my wings, but I can rise on them up to the stars and high into the sky. You, on the other hand, can only flap those gilded feathers of yours down there on the ground, just like a rooster. You are never seen soaring up high in the sky!'
I would prefer to be admired while dressed in my well-worn clothes than to live without honour, no matter how fine my clothes might be.  


The story goes that a sow who had delivered a whole litter of piglets loudly accosted a lioness, 'How many children do you breed?' asked the sow.
'I breed only one,' said the lioness, 'but he is very well bred!'
The fable shows that a single man who is remarkable for physical strength and bravery and wisdom is mightier than many weak and foolish people.  


A butterfly noticed a wasp flying by and exclaimed, 'What an unfair turn of events this is! In our previous lifetimes, when we inhabited the bodies from whose mortal remains we received our souls, I was the one who spoke eloquently in times of peace and fought bravely in war, and I was first among my fellows in all of the arts! Yet look at me now, an utter frivolity, crumbling into ashes as I flutter here and there. You, on the other hand, were formerly a mule, a beast of burden, yet now you stab and wound anyone you want with your sting.'
The wasp then uttered words that are worth repeating: 'It does not matter what we used to be: the important thing is what we are now!'

Note: This fable derives from the ancient belief that wasps would spring from the carcass of a dead mule or horse (e.g. Aelian, Characteristics of Animals 1.28), while a spirit or 'psyche' would take shape in the form of a butterfly (Aristotle, History of Animals 551a)


The hare laughed at the tortoise's feet but the tortoise declared, 'I will beat you in a race!' The hare replied, 'Those are just words. Race with me, and you'll see! Who will mark out the track and serve as our umpire?' 'The fox,' replied the tortoise, 'since she is honest and highly intelligent.' When the time for the race had been decided upon, the tortoise did not delay, but immediately took off down the race course. The hare, however, lay down to take a nap, confident in the speed of his feet. Then, when the hare eventually made his way to the finish line, he found that the tortoise had already won.
The story shows that many people have good natural abilities which are ruined by idleness; on the other hand, sobriety, zeal and perseverance can prevail over indolence.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • How did the lion prove that he was stronger than the man?
  • Why is the little reed superior to the large oak tree?
  • Why is the bramble happier than the fir tree?
  • How is the crane better than the peacock?
  • How does the lioness make fun of the sow?
  • Why is the butterfly so angry at the wasp?
  • How did the tortoise beat the hare in a race?

Source: Laura Gibbs, translator. Aesop's Fables (2003). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM