Aesop's Fables

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

Gods and Goddesses

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1200 words.

And just as there are Aesop's fables about the animal world, and the human world, there are also Aesop's fables about the gods. Not surprisingly, the two gods most commonly found in the fables are Zeus (Roman Jupiter) and Hermes (Roman Mercury). These two gods embody two important motifs in the fables: the motif of authority (Zeus) and the motif of deceit (since Hermes is a trickster god). You will also notice that Hermes is playing his role of messenger in some of these stories too, acting as Zeus's representative in the world of human beings.


While the frogs were hopping about in the freedom of their pond they began shouting to Jupiter that they wanted a king who could hold their dissolute habits in check. Jupiter laughed and bestowed on the frogs a small piece of wood which he dropped all of a sudden into their pond. As the wood splashed lightly into the water, it terrified the timid frogs. They plunged into the mud and hid there a long time until one frog happened to raise her head cautiously up out of the water. After studying the king, she summoned the other frogs. Putting aside their fear, the frogs all raced over and began jumping on the piece of wood, rudely making fun of it. When the frogs had showered their king with shame and scorn, they asked Jupiter to send them another one. Jupiter was angry that they had made fun of the king he had given them, so he sent them a water-snake, who killed the frogs one by one with her piercing sting. As the water-snake was happily eating her fill, the useless creatures ran away, speechless in their fright. They secretly sent a message to Jupiter through Mercury, begging him to put a stop to the slaughter but Jupiter replied, 'Since you rejected what was good in order to get something bad, you better put up with it - or else something even worse might happen!'


Once upon a time the oak trees came to Zeus and lodged a complaint, 'O Zeus, founder of our species and father of all plant life, if it is our destiny to be chopped down, why did you even cause us to grow?' Zeus smiled and replied, 'It is you yourselves who supply the means of your destruction: if you didn't create all the handles, no farmer would have an axe in his house!'


Zeus gathered all the useful things together in a jar and put a lid on it. He then left the jar in human hands. But man had no self-control and he wanted to know what was in that jar, so he pushed the lid aside, letting those things go back to the abode of the gods. So all the good things flew away, soaring high above the earth, and Hope was the only thing left. When the lid was put back on the jar, Hope was kept inside. That is why Hope alone is still found among the people, promising that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away.

Note: Unlike the famous 'Pandora's box' version of this story (which is attested as early as the eighth century B.C.E. in the Greek poet Hesiod), this version notably does not blame all the misfortune of the world on a woman.


Mercury was once the guest of two women who treated him in a cheap and tawdry manner. One of these women was the mother of an infant still in his cradle, while the other woman was a prostitute. In order to return the women's hospitality as they deserved, Mercury paused on the threshold of their door as he was leaving and said, 'You are gazing upon a god: I am prepared to give you right away whatever it is you want.' The mother beseeched the god to allow her to see her son with a beard as soon as possible, while the prostitute wanted the power to attract anything she touched. Mercury flew away and the women went back inside, where they found the baby with a beard, wailing and screaming. This made the prostitute laugh so hard that her nose filled with snot (as sometimes happens), but when she touched her hand to her nose, the nose followed her hand until it reached all the way down to the floor. In this way the woman who had laughed at someone else ended up being laughed at herself.


A man was chopping wood by a certain river when he dropped his axe and it was carried away by the current. The man then sat down on the riverbank and began to weep. The god Hermes finally took pity on the man and appeared before him. When Hermes learned the reason for his sorrow, he brought up a golden axe and asked whether that was the man's axe. The man said that it was not his. A second time, Hermes brought up a silver axe, and again asked the man if this was the axe he had lost but the man said that it was not. The third time Hermes brought up the axe that the man had lost and when the man recognized his axe, Hermes rewarded the man's honesty by giving all of the axes to him as a gift.
The man took the axes and went to tell his friends what had happened. One of the men was jealous and wanted to do the same thing, so he took his axe and went to the river. He began chopping some wood and then intentionally let his axe fall into the whirling waters. As he was weeping, Hermes appeared and asked him what had happened, and the man said that he had lost his axe. When Hermes brought up the golden axe and asked the man if that was the axe he had lost, the greedy man got excited and said that it was the one. Not only did the man fail to receive any gifts from the god, he didn't even retrieve his own axe.
The fable shows that the gods are sympathetic to honest people and hostile to people who are liars.


A weasel once fell in love with a handsome young man and the blessed goddess Aphrodite, the mother of desire, allowed the weasel to change her shape, so that she appeared to be a beautiful woman whom any man would be glad to take as his wife. As soon as the young man laid eyes on her, he also fell in love and wanted to marry her. While the wedding feast was in progress, a mouse ran by. The bride leaped up from her richly decorated couch and began to run after the mouse, thus bringing an end to the wedding. After having played his little joke, Eros took his leave: Nature had proved stronger than Love.

Note: Eros is the Greek personification of Desire, like 'Cupid' in Latin.


An ox-driver was bringing his wagon from town and it fell into a steep ditch. The man should have pitched in and helped, but instead he stood there and did nothing, praying to Heracles, who was the only one of the gods whom he really honoured and revered. The god appeared to the man and said, 'Grab hold of the wheels and goad the oxen: pray to the gods only when you're making some effort on your own behalf; otherwise, your prayers are wasted!'

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

  • what happened to the frogs who wanted a king?
  • why did the oak trees complain to Zeus?
  • what happened to the jar that Zeus filled with good things?
  • what happened to the two women who treated Mercury rudely?
  • what happened to the man who lied to Hermes about his axe?
  • what happened to the weasel who prayed to Aphrodite?
  • what happened to the wagon driver who prayed to Heracles?

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