India: The Frog-King's Folly

As the new year begins, I want to do a better job of including fables from India here at the blog, and here is one that is a great blend of familiar elements from Aesop, such as a trickster who lays a deadly trap for a foolish victim, along with some distinctively Indian elements, such as individual names for the animals and a karmic curse (or, rather, a pretend-curse, as the frog learns to his great cost).

This is a traditional story that goes back to the ancient Panchatantra, and the version I am sharing here is told by the modern author, Shovona Devi (a niece of Rabindranath Tagore); she included the story in her collection of Indian Fables and Folktales.


Once upon a time a snake had grown too old to catch prey, so it went and took up its quarters beside a pool where there were many frogs.

The King of the Frogs, named Yal-Pada, the Web-Footed One, was apprised of the coming of this dangerous stranger. He went to the snake, attended by all the frogs, to enquire why, of all places on earth, it had chosen the vicinity of this particular pool for its home.

"I am named Manda-Vish, Slow Poison, O King Yal-Pada," said the snake, lowering its hood. "I am under a curse and forbidden to harm frogs without the leave of their king. Once I pursued a frog and by accident bit a Brahmin. He died, pronouncing this curse on me: May you die if you eat a frog again unless with the leave of the King of the Frogs. O King Yal-Pada, I mean to do penance for my sin in slaying the Brahmin," said the snake. "Let it be my penance to bear your majesty on my head wherever it shall please you to ride."

Without more ado Yal-Pada leaped onto the hood of the snake, which crawled away, swaying its body gracefully to and fro. The other frogs looked on amazed, but some bolder spirits amongst them followed their king at a distance.

After a time the snake stopped, gasping.

"Why do you stay, O Manda-Vish?" asked Yal-Pada.

"O King of the Frogs, I am famished and faint," replied the wily serpent. "I cannot bear you back to the pool unless you grant me something to eat. To eat a frog without your leave, I have told you, would mean my death."

King Yal-Pada had enjoyed his ride immensely, and did not like the idea of losing his dignity by hopping back to the pool, so he offered one of his attendant frogs to the snake. Having thus appeased its hunger, Manda-Vish took the King of the Frogs up on its hood again and crawled away back to the pool.

In this way the snake was provided with a frog every day, and in return for its meals it took Yal-Pada out on its hood for a ride. Thus one by one all the frogs were eaten up.

When there were no more frogs left for it, Manda-Vish made its last meal off King Yal-Pada, and then departed to find fresh folly to be the victim of its guile.


Aesop: The Mouse and its Mother

After the unfortunate story of the thief's mother and her poor parenting, I thought I would do a fable about a wiser mother: this is the story of a mouse-mother teaching a young mouse not to be fooled by appearances. The rooster may look fierce but he poses no threat to the mouse, while things are just the opposite when it comes to the cat.

I've collected different English versions and illustrations for this story, and for comparative purposes, I thought I would include one longer version here, and one shorter version.

The longer version is from The Aesop for Children with illustrations by Milo Winter:


A very young Mouse, who had never seen anything of the world, almost came to grief the very first time he ventured out. And this is the story he told his mother about his adventures. "I was strolling along very peaceably when, just as I turned the corner into the next yard, I saw two strange creatures. One of them had a very kind and gracious look, but the other was the most fearful monster you can imagine. You should have seen him. On top of his head and in front of his neck hung pieces of raw red meat. He walked about restlessly, tearing up the ground with his toes, and beating his arms savagely against his sides. The moment he caught sight of me he opened his pointed mouth as if to swallow me, and then he let out a piercing roar that frightened me almost to death."

Can you guess who it was that our young Mouse was trying to describe to his mother? It was nobody but the Barnyard Cock and the first one the little Mouse had ever seen.

"If it had not been for that terrible monster," the Mouse went on, "I should have made the acquaintance of the pretty creature, who looked so good and gentle. He had thick, velvety fur, a meek face, and a look that was very modest, though his eyes were bright and shining. As he looked at me he waved his fine long tail and smiled. I am sure he was just about to speak to me when the monster I have told you about let out a screaming yell, and I ran for my life."

"My son," said the Mother Mouse, "that gentle creature you saw was none other than the Cat. Under his kindly appearance, he bears a grudge against every one of us. The other was nothing but a bird who wouldn't harm you in the least. As for the Cat, he eats us. So be thankful, my child, that you escaped with your life, and, as long as you live, never judge people by their looks."

Do not trust alone to outward appearances.

And just to show how it is possible to tell the "same" story but very much shortened, here is the version from Baby's Book of Fables:


"Mother," said a little mouse, "I saw just now a soft, white, kind-looking animal creeping along. I meant to go to it and make friends; but a great, fierce bird stood close by, and gave such a dreadful shriek that I was afraid, and ran away."

"Ah, child," said the mother, "that kind-looking animal is a cat, who would eat you. The bird is a cock, who would do you no harm."

Never judge by appearances.

And here is Granville's illustration for La Fontaine's version of this story:


Aesop: The Thief and His Mother

After stories two wise parents (the father and the lion), I thought it would be good to share a fable where the parent has failed to do their duty in educating their child. This is Aesop's fable about the young thief and his mother, and be warned: it's a bit gruesome.

I've collected different English versions and illustrations, and the version I've reproduced here is from an unusual little publication: it's an advertising pamphlet published in 1895 by the Halford Sauce Company which contains 27 fables accompanied by Karel van Sichem's 17th-century woodcuts. For some reason they included this grim little fable in the pamphlet!


A Boy stole a book from a schoolmate, and took it home to his Mother. This was his first theft, but under his mother's commendation he continued to pilfer till he reached man’s estate, when, at last, he was taken in the act, and led away to public execution. 

His Mother followed, tearing her hair in sorrow, whereon the young man said, “I wish to say something to my Mother in her ear.” 

She approached him when, seizing her ear in his teeth, he bit it off. Upbraiding him for his unnatural act, he replied, “Ah, if you had corrected me when I first stole the school-book, I should not have come to this disgraceful end.” 

MORAL. Those whose vices are not corrected in youth afterwards suffer greater calamities. 


Aesop: The Undutiful Young Lion

After a father teaching his sons (with the bundle of sticks), I thought I would do a lion father teaching his son... although this son does not heed the lesson that his father tries to teach him. Instead, he learns the hard way, lucky to escape with his life!

This is the version from Bewick's Aesop of 1784:


Among other good counsels that an old experienced Lion gave to his whelp, this was one, that he should never contend with a man: "for," says he, "if ever you do, you'll be worsted."

The little Lion gave his father the hearing, and kept the advice in his thought, but it never went near his heart. When he came to be grown up, afterwards, and in the flower of his strength and vigour, about he ranges to look for a man to grapple with.

In his ramble he met with a yoke of oxen, and then with a horse, saddled and bridled, and severally asked them if they were men; but they saying they were not, he goes after this to one that was cleaving of blocks: "D'ye hear?" says the Lion, "you seem to be a man."

"And a man I am," says the fellow.

"That's well," quoth the Lion, "and dare you fight with me?"

"Yes," says the man, "I dare: why, I can tear all these blocks to pieces, you see. Put your feet now into this gap, where you see an iron thing there, and try what you can do."

The Lion presently put his paws into the gaping of the wood, and with one lusty pluck made it give way, and out drops the wedge; the wood immediately closing upon it, there was the Lion caught by the toes.

The Wood-man presently upon this raises the country, and the Lion finding what a strait he was in, gave one hearty twitch and got his feet out of the trap, but left his claws behind him.

So away he goes back to his father, all lame and bloody, with this confession in his mouth: "Alas! my dear father," says he, "this had never been, if I had followed your advice."

MORAL. The vengeance of Heaven, sooner or later, treads upon the heels of wilful disobedience to parents.


Aesop: The Bundle of Sticks

Although Aesop's fables were not originally written for children, they did always have a "didactic" element, conveying some kind of moral or lesson. It is thus not surprising to find that fables sometimes feature parents teaching, or attempting to teach, their children, as in yesterday's fable about the crab-mother and her daughter (or son). So, I was thinking it would be fun to do a series of fable parents and children, showing the kinds of lessons they teach.

For today, I chose a very famous one about a father trying to teach his quarrelsome sons to cooperate. This one is famous enough to have a Wikipedia article of its own: The Old Man and his Sons. In addition to being widely repeated over the ages, it was also known in the ancient world beyond Aesop. For example, the same story was told of a Scythian king who supposedly shared this lesson with all eighty of his surviving sons; he used javelins, instead of sticks (see Scilurus, in Plutarch's Sayings of the Kings and Commanders).

I have collected various English versions and illustrations, and the one I chose to use here is the version by Croxall:


An old man had many sons, who were often falling out with one another. When the father had exerted his authority, and used other means in order to reconcile them, and all to no purpose, at last he had recourse to this expedient: he ordered his sons to be called before him, and a short bundle of sticks to be brought, and then commanded them, one by one, to try if, with all their might and strength, they could any of them break it.

They all tried, but to no purpose; for the sticks being closely and compactly bound up together, it was impossible for the force of man to do it.

After this, the father ordered the bundle to be untied, and gave a single stick to each of his sons, at the same time bidding him try to break it.

Which when each did with all imaginable ease, the father addressed himself to them to this effect: "O, my sons, behold the power of unity! For if you in like manner would but keep yourselves strictly conjoined in the bonds of friendship, it would not be in the power of any mortal to hurt you; but when once the ties of brotherly affection are dissolved, how soon do you fall to pieces, and are liable to be. violated by every injurious hand that assaults you."

And for an illustration, here is Walter Crane, which also has a limerick by Linton:


To his sons, who fell out, father spake:
"This Bundle of Sticks you can't break;
Take them singly, with ease,
You may break as you please;
So, dissension your strength will unmake."



Aesop: Mother Crab

Yesterday's fable about the frog who claimed that he was a physician (but could not heal himself) reminds me of another fable about hypocrisy: the story of one crab teaching another crab how to walk straight. It is a "do as I say, not as I do" type of fable! As a teacher, I always take this fable very much to heart, trying not to ask students to do things that I am unwilling (or unable!) to do myself.

The fable is usually told about a mother and her daughter (although sometimes a son instead), but it is not always a crab in English; sometimes the classical crab becomes a lobster or a crayfish instead.

I've collected different English versions and illustrations, and I've chosen the fable-in-verse by Mary Leone Gilliam Thummel to include here:


"My dear," said old Mrs. Crab to her daughter,
"Of all awkward beasts on land or on water,
Though they walk, though they jump, though they hop or crawl,
You surely are the most awkward of all."
"O mother, I thought all the graces I knew,
For I've faithfully tried to walk just like you.
But if you will teach me a more graceful way,
I'll learn, for I'll practice by night and by day."
'Tis strange, very strange, how much plainer I see
The mistakes that you make, than those made by me.

And just to show that it is not always a crab-daughter, here is an even shorter fable poem by Oliver Herford which features a crab-son:


Said a Crab in tone irate
To her son, "Your sidelong gait
Annoys me; can you not go straight?
Said the Son, "I'll try, if you
Will show me how." What could she do?
Mother Crab went sideways too!

Here's an illustration by Milo Winter which also features a mother and son... with very gendered clothing!

And as an example with lobsters, here is an illustration to La Fontaine by Grandville:


Aesop: The Frog Physician

After the fables about the cat-as-physician and the lion-as-physician, I have to include the most famous would-be physician in Aesop's fables: the frog. The fable echoes the theme of the famous Biblical rebuke, "Physician, heal thyself," but this time it is the fox who rebukes the sickly-looking frog.

I've collected different English versions and illustrations here, and I picked the Thomas James version to use here. I like the way that invokes Asclepius, the god-physician who was son of Apollo, and whose snake-entwined rod is still famous as a symbol of medicine.


A Frog emerging from the mud of a swamp, proclaimed to all the world that he was come to cure all diseases. “Here!” he cried; “come and see a doctor, the proprietor of medicines such as man never heard of before; no, not Aesculapius himself, Jove’s court-physician!”

“And how,” said the Fox, “dare you set up to heal others, who are not able to cure your own limping gait, and blotched and wrinkled skin?”

Test a man’s profession by his practice. Physician, heal thyself.

This illustration by Arthur Rackham is a fun one:

And here is another fun one by J. M. Conde:


Aesop: The Horse and the Lion

After yesterday's fable about the cat as a false friend to the birds, I thought I would follow up with a story about the lion (a big cat!) who plays false friend to a horse, acting like a physician, just as the cat did.

This fable is sometimes told about a wolf instead of a lion, and sometimes a donkey instead of a horse; you can see some different variations and illustrations here.

Here is the version from Croxall's Aesop: I like the way the horse goes away neighing and laughing!


A lion, seeing a fine plump nag, had a great mind to eat a bit of him, but knew not which way to get him into his power. At last he bethought himself of this contrivance; he gave out that he was a physician, who having gained experience by his travels into foreign countries, had made himself capable of curing any sort of malady or distemper incident to any kind of beast, hoping by this stratagem to get an easier admittance among cattle, and find an opportunity to execute his design.

The horse, who smoked the matter, was resolved to be even with him; and so humouring the thing, as if he suspected nothing, he prayed the lion to give him his advice in relation to a thorn which he had got in his foot, which had quite lamed him, and gave him great pain and uneasiness.

The lion readily agreed, and desired he might see the foot; upon which the horse lifted up one of his hind legs, and while the lion pretended to be poring earnestly upon his hoof, gave him such a kick in the face as quite stunned him, and left him sprawling upon the ground. In the meantime, the horse trotted away, neighing and laughing merrily at the success of the trick, by which he had defeated the purpose of one who intended to have tricked him out of his life.

Here is the accompanying illustration:

In this colored woodcut from Steinhowel's Aesop, you can see that the horse has drawn blood!


Aesop: The Cat and the Birds

Yesterday's fable was about a wolf who offered to play midwife to the sow (and the sow wisely refused), and I thought I would follow that up with another story about a pretend helper: this is a story about a cat who pretends to be a doctor to the chickens!

I've collected different versions and illustrations here, and I like this one from Aesop's Fables by Lena Dalkeith, with pictures by S. R. Praeger, published in 1908:


One morning a cat with much care dressed himself up like a doctor, and went to call on some little birds that lived in a cage near by.

"Good morning," he said. "I heard from a friend that there was illness amongst you, and, being very much grieved, I hastened here as quickly as I could to see if I could help you in any way."

"No, thank you," cried all the little birds in a chorus; "there is nothing the matter with us. We are very well indeed, and we shall all keep very well so long as our door is shut and you are on the outside of it."

~ ~ ~

I also like the Townsend version because of the metaphorical moral, "Cats hide their claws."


A Cat, hearing that the Birds in a certain aviary were ailing dressed himself up as a physician, and, taking his cane and a bag of instruments becoming his profession, went to call on them. He knocked at the door and inquired of the inmates how they all did, saying that if they were ill, he would be happy to prescribe for them and cure them. They replied, “We are all very well, and shall continue so, if you will only be good enough to go away, and leave us as we are.”
Moral. Cats hide their claws

This illustration by Arthur Rackham is a fun one:


Aesop: The Sow and the Wolf

After yesterday's fable about the sow and her piglets, I thought I would do another fable about a sow mother; in this fable, the sow has to fend off the offer of a false friend: the wolf. There are many fables about false friends. What I like about this one is that it shows the wolf trying to be sneaky. Luckily, though, the sow is too smart even for this sneaky wolf!

I've collected different English translations and illustrations here, and the one I picked to use here is the 15th-century English version by Caxton. The English of that time is not easy to read, so I've included a modernized version here too, side by side:

Of the sow and the wolf
It is not good to believe all such things as men may hear, whereof Aesop tells such a fable of a wolf which came to a sow and wept and sorrowed for the great pain that the sow felt because she was giving birth to her young piggies. And the wolf came to her saying: My sister, give birth to your young piggies with confidence, for joyously and with good will I shall help and serve you. And the sow then said to him: Go forth on your way for I have no need nor requirement of such a servant, for as long as you shall stand here, I shall not give birth to my children, for you desire nothing other than to have and eat them. The wolf then went and the sow soon gave birth to her piggies. For if she had believed him, she would have had a sorrowful birth.
And thus he that believes foolish things, foolish things happen to him.

Of the sowe and of the wulf
It is not good to byleue all suche thynges as men may here / wherof Esope sayth suche a fable / Of a wulf whiche came toward a sowe / whiche wepte and made sorowe for the grete payne that she felte / by cause she wold make her yong pygges / And the wulf came to her sayeng / My suster make thy yong pygges surely / for ioyously and with good wylle / I shalle helpe & serue the / And the sowe sayd thenne to hym / go forth on thy waye / for I haue no nede ne myster of suche a seruaunt / For as long as thow shalt stonde here I shal not delyuere me of my charge / For other thyng thow desyrest not / than to haue and ete them / The wulf thenne wente / and the sowe was anone delyuerd of her pygges / For yf she had byleuyd hym she had done a sorowful byrthe /
And thus he that folysshly byleueth / folysshly it happeth to hym

And here is the 15th-century woodcut that goes with the fable:


Aesop: Eagle, Cat, and Sow

After the fable of the eagle mother and the fox mother, I thought I would do another fable about animal mothers, this time about an eagle, a pig, and a very wicked cat. The wicked cat is an expert at the strategy of "divide and conquer," as you will see. The Roman poet Phaedrus tells this story, which means you can also find it in later fabulists; I've collected different English versions and illustrations here.

This is a rhyming version by Mary Leone Gilliam Thummel with an illustration by Edward Eksergian.


In the top of a tree was an old eagle's nest,
Where she and her young with contentment were blest.
A sow and her family took up their abode
In the hollow trunk, just close on the road,
While a wild cat reposed in a hole in the middle,
And all went as happy and gay as a fiddle,
Till the cat, with her evil and treacherous mind,
Which to trouble and mischief was always inclined,
Crept up to the eagle and said, "Woe is me!
The old sow I am sure is uprooting the tree!
She will root all around till down it will fall,
And then she'll devour us, young ones, and all!"
The eagle, affrighted, would not leave her brood,
Lest they all perish while she went for food.
This done, the old cat went down to the sow,
Saying, "Friend, I'll tell yon, you'll have trouble now,
The old eagle is watching till you go away,
To get one of your piggies for dinner today."
The sow was now frightened as much as the eagle,
And nothing could her from the hollow inveigle,
So both of these families were starved in the tree,
And the wild cat and her young ones feasted in glee.
The friend who drops in to slander a neighbor
Is more to be shunned than a foe with a saber.


Aesop: The Eagle and the Fox

After yesterday's post about the eagle and her young (The Eagle and the Beetle), I thought I would move on to another story about the eagle-mother, who steals the young fox cub(s) to feed to her own eagle chicks.

This fable of the eagle and the fox has two very different endings: in versions derived from the Roman poet Phaedrus, the fox threatens the eagle and thus rescues her children, but in other versions coming from the Greek prose tradition, the eagle chicks do indeed devour the little fox(es), and then the fox mother gets her revenge by eating the eagle's chicks. I've included an example of each version below.

This is from Thomas James's Aesop, with illustrations by Tenniel:


An Eagle and a Fox had long lived together as good neighbours, the Eagle at the summit of a high tree, the Fox in a hole at the foot of it.

One day, however, while the Fox was abroad, the Eagle made a swoop at the Fox's cub and carried it off to her nest, thinking that her lofty dwelling would secure her from the Fox's revenge.

The Fox on her return home upbraided the Eagle for this breach of friendship, and begged earnestly to have her young one again; but finding that her entreaties were of no avail, she snatched a torch from an altar-fire that had been lighted hard by, and involving the whole tree in flame and smoke, soon made the Eagle restore, through fear for herself and her own young ones, the cub which she had just now denied to her most earnest prayers.

The tyrant, though he may despise the tears of the oppressed, is never safe from their vengeance.

~ ~ ~

Here is the more gruesome version as found in Townsend's Aesop, with illustrations by Harrison Weir:


An Eagle and a Fox formed an intimate friendship and decided to live near each other. The Eagle built her nest in the branches of a tall tree, while the Fox crept into the underwood and there produced her young.

Not long after they had agreed upon this plan, the Eagle, being in want of provision for her young ones, swooped down while the Fox was out, seized upon one of the little cubs, and feasted herself and her brood.

The Fox on her return, discovered what had happened, but was less grieved for the death of her young than for her inability to avenge them.

A just retribution, however, quickly fell upon the Eagle. While hovering near an altar, on which some villagers were sacrificing a goat, she suddenly seized a piece of the flesh, and carried it, along with a burning cinder, to her nest. A strong breeze soon fanned the spark into a flame, and the eaglets, as yet unfledged and helpless, were roasted in their nest and dropped down dead at the bottom of the tree. There, in the sight of the Eagle, the Fox gobbled them up.


Aesop: The Eagle and the Beetle

After Jupiter and the bee yesterday, I wanted to do another story with Jupiter, so I chose this wonderful story about the dung-beetle and the eagle. The eagle is Jupiter's chosen bird (just as the peacock is the bird beloved of his wife, Juno), so when the eagle needs help, it goes to Jupiter... but that is not enough to protect the eagle from the dung-beetle's revenge.

You can see different versions and illustrations here; I've chosen the version from The Aesop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter:


A Beetle once begged the Eagle to spare a Hare which had run to her for protection. But the Eagle pounced upon her prey, the sweep of her great wings tumbling the Beetle a dozen feet away.

Furious at the disrespect shown her, the Beetle flew to the Eagle's nest and rolled out the eggs. Not one did she spare.

The Eagle's grief and anger knew no bounds, but who had done the cruel deed she did not know.

Next year the Eagle built her nest far up on a mountain crag; but the Beetle found it and again destroyed the eggs.

In despair the Eagle now implored great Jupiter to let her place her eggs in his lap. There none would dare harm them.

But the Beetle buzzed about Jupiter's head, and made him rise to drive her away; and the eggs rolled from his lap.

Now the Beetle told the reason for her action, and Jupiter had to acknowledge the justice of her cause. And they say that ever after, while the Eagle's eggs lie in the nest in spring, the Beetle still sleeps in the ground. For so Jupiter commanded.

Even the weakest may find means to avenge a wrong.

~ ~ ~

And take a look also at this illustration from the Medici Aesop: you can see the eagle snatching the rabbit and carrying it away, then the beetle rolling the eggs out of the nest, and finally the beetle making Jupiter cast the eggs from his lap!


Aesop: Jupiter and the Bee

After yesterday's post about the bear and the bees, I thought I would share a fable from the bee's perspective: it is an aetiological fable about how the bee got its sting. As you would expect, the god Zeus (Jupiter) is involved in determining the bee's nature. Like bear, the bee pays a price for its anger; because it wants to express its anger, the bee ultimately loses its life.

Here is Thomas James's translation of the Greek fable:


In days of yore when the world was young, a Bee that had stored her combs with a bountiful harvest flew up to heaven to present as a sacrifice an offering of honey.

Jupiter was so delighted with the gift that he promised to give her whatsoever she should ask for. She therefore besought him saying, "O glorious Jove, maker and master of me, poor Bee, give thy servant a sting that when any one approaches my hive to take the honey I may kill him on the spot."

Jupiter out of love to man was angry at her request and thus answered her, "Your prayer shall not be granted in the way you wish, but the sting which you ask for you shall have, and when anyone comes to take away your honey and you attack him, the wound shall be fatal not to him but to you, for your life shall go with your sting."

He that prays harm for his neighbour begs a curse upon himself.

And here is an illustration from Steinhowel's Aesop:


Aesop: The Bear and the Bees

Although I have labeled this a fable of Aesop, it belongs to the "neo-Latin Aesop" of the Renaissance; the first version I know of this fable is found in the fables of Abstemius, who lived from 1440-1508; you can find out more at Wikipedia. Among other works, he was the author of a book called Hecatomythium, a collection of one hundred fables (mythos is the Greek word for a fable or story).

I thought this would be a good fable to share for all the students out there feeling the stress and pressure of finals. Don't be like the bear and let one little "sting" unleash your anger: stay calm, and as the modern saying advises: Don't sweat the small stuff.

Here is the story as told in Aesop for Children (published in 1919):


A Bear roaming the woods in search of berries happened on a fallen tree in which a swarm of Bees had stored their honey. The Bear began to nose around the log very carefully to find out if the Bees were at home. Just then one of the swarm came home from the clover field with a load of sweets. Guessing what the Bear was after, the Bee flew at him, stung him sharply and then disappeared into the hollow log.

The Bear lost his temper in an instant, and sprang upon the log tooth and claw, to destroy the nest. But this only brought out the whole swarm. The poor Bear had to take to his heels, and he was able to save himself only by diving into a pool of water.

It is wiser to bear a single injury in silence than to provoke a thousand by flying into a rage.

And here is the illustration by Francis Barlow: you can tell the poor bear is realizing his mistake!


Aesop: The Moon and Her Mother

A while ago I shared a fable from Nigeria, Nigeria: Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky. I am a big fan of these "why" stories, which are also called "aetiological" fables, from the Greek word aetion, meaning "cause."

So, as a follow-up to that fable, I wanted to share one of Aesop's aetiological fables, this one being about the moon and, specifically, why the moon changes shape. In this fable, the moon is imagined as a woman, and she has a mother... and the mother is having a hard time with the fact that her daughter keeps changing her size! So, it's not really an aetiological fable per se: instead of telling us why the moon changes size, this fable is more about the aftermath and what a bother it is that the moon will not stay the same size.

Here is the fable in V. S. Vernon Jones's translation:


The Moon once begged her Mother to make her a gown. "How can I?" replied she; "there's no fitting your figure. At one time you're a New Moon, and at another you're a Full Moon; and between whiles you're neither one nor the other."

And here is an illustration by the marvelous Arthur Rackham:


Aesop: The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

After the donkey in the lion's skin from yesterday, I wanted to share a fable about the wolf in the sheep's skin. There is the proverbial "wolf in sheep's clothing" in the Bible (read more at Wikipedia), and in Aesop, the wolf is able to make good use of his disguise for a while, but he gets found out in the end!

Here are some English translations and illustrations; to share here I chose the version in verse by Oliver Herford, with an illustration by Francis Barlow. In some versions of the fable, the focus is on providing a warning to the other shepherds not be fooled, but in Herford, the emphasis is on warning the sheep to beware of wolves in disguise.


A wicked Wolf once donned the skin
Of a dead Sheep and so got in
Among the flock, deceiving by
His artifice the shepherd's eye.
All day, secure in his disguise,
He watched his prey with gleaming eyes
And ever growing appetite;
But fate willed otherwise. That night
The careful shepherd, counting o'er
His sheep, discovered one sheep more
Than he possessed, and, looking through
The flock again, he caught and slew
The Wolf and hung him to a tree,
That any passing Sheep might see,
And, having seen, might warn the rest,
"A Wolf's a Wolf, howe'er he's dress'd."


Aesop: The Donkey in the Lion's Skin

Earlier I shared the Indian folktale about the donkey in the tiger's skin, so I thought I should share the Aesopic version about the donkey in the lion's skin. You can find lots of English versions and illustrations here. In the Indian version, it is the donkey's bray who gives him away, while in the English versions of the fable, it is the donkey's ears that betray him.

Here is Croxall's version:

The Ass in the Lion's Skin

An ass, finding the skin of a lion, put it on, and going into the woods and pastures, threw all the flocks and herds into a terrible consternation.

At last, meeting his owner, he would have frightened him also; but the good man, seeing his long ears stick out, presently knew him, and with a good cudgel made him sensible that, notwithstanding his being dressed in a lion's skin, he was really no more than an ass.

~ ~ ~

And here is the illustration from Steinhowel's Aesop: his ears are clearly sticking out of the disguise, as are his hooves!


Aesop: Venus and the Cat

After the story of the unhappy lion love story from yesterday, I thought I would share this funny little fable about a smaller cat and the man who loves her.

In the ancient Greek version of this fable, the animal in question is a weasel, not a cat. This is because the ancient Greeks kept weasels as mousers in their house, not cats. Over time, the same old fable about the weasel came to be told about a cat!

Here are some different English versions and illustrations of the fable, and I picked this version by Joseph Jacobs because I like the way it has the gods debating amongst themselves:


The gods were once disputing whether it was possible for a living being to change its nature. Jupiter said "Yes," but Venus said "No."

So, to try the question, Jupiter turned a Cat into a Maiden, and gave her to a young man for a wife. The wedding was duly performed and the young couple sat down to the wedding-feast.

"See," said Jupiter, to Venus, "how becomingly she behaves. Who could tell that yesterday she was but a Cat? Surely her nature is changed?"

"Wait a minute," replied Venus, and let loose a mouse into the room.

No sooner did the bride see this than she jumped up from her seat and tried to pounce upon the mouse.

"Ah, you see," said Venus, "Nature will out."

~ ~ ~

Here is the "before" illustration by Francis Barlow; in this depiction, it is the man who falls in love with the cat, and he prays to Venus, the goddess up in the clouds, to turn his cat into a woman!

And here is the "after" illustration by John Tenniel: I like the way the woman looks rather baffled that she has grabbed up the mouse in her hand!


Aesop: The Lion in Love

After the sad little fable of the mouse's fatal marriage to the lioness from yesterday, I wanted to add the fable of the lion in love. This also does not have a happy ending! In some ways it seems like a fairy tale or folktale with an animal bridegroom, but it turns into a typical Aesopic fable of a mistake... and this time, it is the lion who makes the mistake.

I've collected English versions and illustrations here, and I've chosen the Thomas James text as illustrated by Tenniel to share here:


It happened in days of old that a Lion fell in love with a Woodman’s daughter, and had the folly to ask her of her father in marriage.

The Woodman was not much pleased with the offer, and declined the honour of so dangerous an alliance.

But upon the Lion threatening him with his royal displeasure, the poor man, seeing that so formidable a creature was not to be denied, hit at length upon this expedient: “I feel greatly flattered,” said he, “with your proposal; but, noble sir, what great teeth you have got! And what great claws you have got! Where is the damsel that would not be frightened at such weapons as these? You must have your teeth drawn and your claws pared before you can be a suitable bridegroom for my daughter.”

The Lion straightway submitted (for what will not a body do for love?) and then called upon the father to accept him as a son-in-law.

But the Woodman, no longer afraid of the tamed and disarmed bully, seized a stout cudgel, and drove the unreasonable suitor from his door.

~ ~ ~

And in this lovely illustration by Walter Crane, you can see Cupid afflicting the lion with love, even as his claws are being taken from him; the woodsman has his characteristic weapons, while she has distaff for spinning wool: lanam fecit, as it says on so many Roman women's tombstones.

Though the Lion in love let them draw
All his teeth, and pare down every claw,
He'd no bride for his pains,
For they beat out his brains
Ere he set on his maiden a paw.


Aesop: The Mouse's Wedding

Yesterday, I told the story of the lion and the mouse. It's a great example of an Aesop's fable that is based on a mistake, i.e. the lion mistakenly thinks there is nothing useful a mouse could do for him — but unlike more mean-spirited Aesop's fables, the correction to this mistake is very heart-warming: the mouse saves the lion's life. The moral of the story is sometimes given as "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted," which you will find widely attributed to Aesop on the Internet, sometimes with an allusion to the fable of the lion and the mouse but more often simply as a free-standing, feel-good sentiment. (The historical Aesop, if he ever existed, would no doubt be appalled to have this be his most widely repeated aphorism.)

What most people probably do not know, however, is that there is a sequel to this story. The lion wants to reward the mouse for his exemplary behavior, and so he agrees to do the mouse a favor. The mouse asks to marry the lion's daughter... and, as you can imagine, things do not turn out well for the mouse! This grim little fable is much more typical of the spirit of Aesop's fables: the mistake proves fatal, and the fable often goes by the name of The Fatal Marriage. You can see various English translations and illustrations here; here is Croxall's version, with an illustration from the 1867 edition. If you look closely, you will see the mouse, with the lion family — daughter, father, and mother — watching the events unfold:


A lion, touched with the grateful procedure of a mouse, and resolving not to be outdone in generosity by any wild beast whatsoever, desired his little deliverer to name his own terms, for that he might depend upon his complying with any proposal he should make.

The mouse, fired with ambition at this gracious offer, did not so much consider what was proper for him to ask, as what was in the power of his prince to grant; and so presumptuously demanded his princely daughter, the young lioness, in marriage.

The lion consented; but, when he would have given the royal virgin into his possession, she, like a giddy thing as she was, not minding how she walked, by chance set her paw upon her spouse, who was coming to meet her, and crushed her little dear to pieces.

~ ~ ~

I also really like this illustration from an 1814 edition of Croxall; the father lion looks very dissatisfied with the outcome, and looking at the lion-bride, I am not so sure that the "accident" was really an accident after all.

In his illustrated Aesop, Walter Crane very nicely combines both fables on a single page; I like how his lady lioness is wearing jewelry for her wedding day:

So the Mouse had Miss Lion for bride;
Very great was his joy and his pride:
But it chanced that she put
On her husband her foot,
And the weight was too much so he died.


Aesop: The Lion and the Mouse

In the last post, I shared a fable about gratitude: The Ant and the Dove. That is not a very famous fable, but the story of The Lion and the Mouse is more well known, probably being the best example of gratitude in Aesop. You can see English translations and illustrations here, and tomorrow I'll share a funny follow-up fable about the next stage of the friendship between the lion and the mouse; be warned: things do not turn out as expected for the little mouse!

Here is a version from Picture Fables in Verse, published in 1856:


A Lion once in kingly pride,
Ranging at will the forest wide,
By accident his paw so dread,
Upon a trembling Mouse was laid,
Which, pleading hard for liberty,
The generous beast at once set free.
It chanced the Lion, after that,
In hunters toils one day was caught:
The Mouse, who heard his roaring noise,
And knew his benefactor's voice,
With teeth so sharp the meshes severed,
And gratefully his friend delivered!

Mercy and gratitude are the ornaments of life. One good turn deserves another.

I like the way this illustration from Steinhowel's Aesop shows two scenes in one picture: you can see the lion having captured the mouse (that's the mouse down in front), and you can also see the same mouse chewing through the cords up above:


Aesop: The Ant and the Dove

For the Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share an Aesop's fable about gratitude! Admittedly, there is not a lot of gratitude going on in the world of Aesop, but there are a few positive exempla to be found, and this is one of the most positive: The Ant and the Dove.

The English version below is from The Aesop for Children, first published in 1919, and the moral of the story as stated here -- A kindness is never wasted -- has now become a "quotable quote" that you will see attributed to Aesop all over the place (some images online). This same moral is also attached to the story of the mouse and the lion, which I will share tomorrow.


(illustration by Percy J. Billinghurst)

A Dove saw an Ant fall into a brook. The Ant struggled in vain to reach the bank, and in pity, the Dove dropped a blade of straw close beside it. Clinging to the straw like a shipwrecked sailor to a broken spar, the Ant floated safely to shore.

Soon after, the Ant saw a man getting ready to kill the Dove with a stone. But just as he cast the stone, the Ant stung him in the heel, so that the pain made him miss his aim, and the startled Dove flew to safety in a distant wood.

A kindness is never wasted.

~ ~ ~

Here is another illustration, this time by Francis Barlow, which shows the ant at work:


Aesop: The Rooster and the Fox

The rooster has had a hard time of it in the past several fables: the thieves kill him, the cat kills him, and the maids kill him. So I decided to give the rooster a break today, and tell the story of the rooster who escaped the fox. This version is from Aesop's Fables by Lena Dalkeith, with pictures by S. R. Praeger, published in 1908.

The fox is up to his usual tricks, like in the story of the fox and the crow, telling the bird what he thinks the bird wants to hear... but the rooster is not going to fall for this trick!


A cock stood crowing on a tree top. "Come down," said the fox, from below, wishing to make a meal of him, "I have great news for you!"

"What news?" asked the cock.

"All the birds and the beasts have sworn peace," answered Reynard. "There will be no more war, but we shall all live like brothers now: come down then that I may congratulate you!"

The cock did not answer, but strained his neck as if looking at something in the distance.

"What do you see?" asked the fox.

"A pack of hounds, I think," was the answer.

Upon this the fox started up to go.

"Surely there is no need to hurry," said the cock, "now that all are at peace!"

"No... no !" stammered Reynard, making off quickly, "but they may not have heard the news."

"I quite understand you," the cock shouted after him.

~ ~ ~

For another image, here is Steinhowel's Aesop; this one shows the dogs about to arrive! 


Aesop: The Thieves and the Rooster

I looked at two rooster fables earlier: one in which an old woman's maidservants foolishly kill a rooster, thinking that they would not have to get up at dawn (but the reverse happened: the old woman woke them even earlier!), and another in which the cat accuses the rooster of bad behavior, including crowing at dawn, and despite the rooster's self-defense, the cat gobbles him up anyway. In today's fable, we will get a new twist on the rooster crowing at dawn. This is the story of The Thieves and the Rooster, as translated by Vernon Jones and illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Things do not turn out well for the rooster in any of these fables, so I will have to find a happier rooster story for a future post! Don't worry: the rooster is sometimes the winner in the fable contest.


Some Thieves broke into a house, and found nothing worth taking except a Cock, which they seized and carried off with them.

When they were preparing their supper, one of them caught up the Cock, and was about to wring his neck, when he cried out for mercy and said, "Pray do not kill me: you will find me a most useful bird, for I rouse honest men to their work in the morning by my crowing."

But the Thief replied with some heat, "Yes, I know you do, making it still harder for us to get a livelihood. Into the pot you go!"


Aesop: L'Estrange's Cat and Rooster

In yesterday's fable about a rooster (The Woman, Her Servants, and the Rooster), I mentioned that I would share some fables in which the rooster speaks up for himself, explaining that he crows at dawn because that is his duty. There is one fable in which the rooster thus tries to explain himself to human thieves (I will share that one tomorrow), but the one I want to share today is the fable of the rooster and the cat.

As you will see, despite the rooster's able defense of his innocence, the cat kills him anyway, much as in the fable of the wolf and the lamb at the stream — a story that no doubt inspired this barnyard version of the same type of confrontation between the tyrant and his innocent victim.

This is also a good opportunity for me to introduce a new project: I have started transcribing the 17th-century fables of Sir Roger L'Estrange, and I'm adding an illustration to each one. Roger L'Estrange's English Aesop is my all-around favorite version of the fables in English, but there is not a good illustrated edition. Now, there will be an illustrated edition online! The text will come from L'Estrange, and I will add a public domain image to each one. You can chart my progress here: Sir Roger L'Estrange's Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists.

So, for today's fable, here is L'Estrange's version of the cat and the rooster. You will get a sense of his wonderful 17th-century English here, with phrases like "a month's mind," meaning a powerful desire (a usage as old as Shakespeare, although the phrase also had a literally meaning as a memorial mass for the dead). My favorite line from this particular fable is: "Cats don't live upon Dialogues." You'll also see a familiar English proverb in the moral to the story: Tis an easy Matter to find a Staff to beat a Dog.

And now, here is the fable:


It was the hard Fortune once of a Cock to fall into the Clutches of a Cat. Puss had a Months mind to be upon the Bones of him, but was not willing to pick a Quarrel however, without some plausible Colour for't.

Sirrah (says he) what do you keep such a bawling and screaming a Nights for, that no body can sleep near you?

Alas says the Cock, I never wake any body, but when 'tis time for People to rise, and go about their Business.

Nay, says the Cat, and then there never was such a lycentuous Rascal: Why, you make no more Conscience of Lying with your own Mother, and your Sisters.

In truth, says the Cock again, that's only to provide Eggs for my Master and Mistress.

Come come, says Puss, without any more ado, 'tis time for me to go to Breakfast, and Cats don't live upon Dialogues.

At which word she gave him a Pinch, and so made an end both of the Cock, and of the Story.

Moral. Tis an easy Matter to find a Staff to beat a Dog. Innocence is no Protection against the Arbitrary Cruelty of a Tyrannical Power: But Reason and Conscience are yet so Sacred, that the Greatest Villanies are still Countenanc'd under that Cloak and Colour. 

~ ~ ~

In addition to the "moral" for each story, L'Estrange also wrote an essay for each fable which he called "reflexions," and you can read his reflexion on this fable at the Internet Archive edition of the book.

And here is an illustration by Harrison Weir. The cat seems to be listening to the rooster's desperate plea, but of course the cat is not really listening at all!


Aesop: The Women, Her Servants, and the Rooster

Today's story is an Aesop's fable about unintended consequences. Here is a link to a blog with English translations and illustrations, and here is my favorite English version; it's from Aesop's Fables by Lena Dalkeith, with pictures by S. R. Praeger.

I like the way that in this story the old widow-woman is not exactly cruel, but she sounds like a workaholic who expects everyone around her to love their work as much as she does. Anybody who has had a workaholic for a boss knows how hard that can be!


An old widow-woman loved work so dearly that she got up every morning as soon as she heard the cock crow: and, more than this, she made all her servants get up at the same time. They, not liking to get out of bed at so early an hour, grew very discontented, and thinking it was the fault of the cock for waking their mistress, they made up their minds to kill him.

This they did, and hoped that afterwards they would be able to sleep till later, but their cruel deed had its own reward, for the widow, having no cock to arouse her at a regular hour, from that time forward woke them up very much earlier —sometimes even in the middle of the night.

Most of the illustrations focus on the women killing the poor rooster, but Praeger instead focuses on the old woman arriving to wake the maids in the middle of the night, carrying a candle because it is still dark!

This illustration by Francis Barlow shows the maids, one with a hatchet in hand, executing the poor rooster: he is clearly protesting, and there are other Aesop's fables in which the rooster protests that he has no choice but to do his duty — I'll share those in future posts.


Aesop: The Crow and the Pitcher

As I did the story of a foolish crow yesterday, I thought I would follow that with a wise crow, in one of my favorite fables: The Crow and the Pitcher, a popular one with many English versions and illustrations. Here's a translation by V.S. Vernon Jones, and I chose the illustration by Milo Winter as it has a Greek vase, which I thought was a nice touch!
 A thirsty Crow found a Pitcher with some water in it, but so little was there that, try as she might, she could not reach it with her beak, and it seemed as though she would die of thirst within sight of the remedy. At last she hit upon a clever plan. She began dropping pebbles into the Pitcher, and with each pebble the water rose a little higher until at last it reached the brim, and the knowing bird was enabled to quench her thirst. 
Necessity is the mother of invention.

To make things even more interesting, scientists have discovered that crows actually do use this strategy: Physics-Minded Crow. Find out more at Clever Crows.


Aesop: The Fox and the Crow

Since I mentioned Aesop's fox and crow in my last post about the Pueblo story of the coyote and the crows, I thought I would do that famous fable today. There are so many versions of this fable in English and so much great artwork; you can see some of them here: The Fox and the Crow.

A fun version is this one by Charles Bennett where the animals are very much anthropomorphic, with the female Crow being an old widow. You can even see her dear departed husband observing the goings-on from his portrait on the wall.

You will find all of Bennett's Aesop's fables here: Fables of Aesop and others, translated into human nature by Charles H. Bennett, published in 1857 and available online at Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive.

A homely old female Crow, having flown out of a shop in the town with a piece of rich cheese in her bill, betook herself to a fine eminence in the country, in order to enjoy it; which a cunning Fox observing, came and sat at her feet, and began to compliment the Crow upon the subject of her beauty.

"I protest," said he, "I never observed it before, but your feathers are of a more delicate white than any I ever saw in my life! Ah, what a fine shape and graceful turn of the body is there! And I make no question but you have a voice to correspond. If it is but as fine as your complexion, I do not know a bird that can pretend to stand in competition with you. Come, let me hear you exercise it by pronouncing a single monosyllable, which will bind me to you, hand and heart, for ever."

The Crow, tickled with this very civil language, nestled and wriggled about, and hardly knew where she was; but thinking the Fox had scarcely done justice to her voice, and willing to set him right in that matter, she called out "Yes," as loud as possible.

But, through this one fatal mistake of opening her mouth, she let fall her rich prize — (in the Fox's shrewd estimation all she was worth in the world) — which the Fox snapped up directly, and trotted away to amuse himself as he pleased, laughing to himself at the credulity of the Crow, who saw but little of him or her cheese afterwards.

MORAL.Advice to Rich Widows. — When you listen to a knave's flattery upon what you are, you may have cause to regret not having kept your mouth shut upon what you had; and if you possess great store of cheese, be sure that no fortune-hunter will marry you for the mere sake of the Pairing.

Here's the colored version of the illustration:


World: The Coyote and the Crows

I want to include some short tales here from other cultures that have some kind of intersection with Aesop's fables. This story from the Isleta Pueblo people of the American Southwest is about a trickster, Coyote, who is himself tricked by some Crows, which is why the Coyote and Crows are enemies today. In Aesop, the fox famously tricked the crow, but in this story the crows trick the coyote, an archetypal trickster like Aesop's fox.

My source for the story is Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories by Charles Lummis. You can read more about the Pueblo peoples at Wikipedia, and there's also an article about Charles Lummis.


ONCE on a time many Káh-ahn [Crows] lived in the edge of some woods. A little out into the plain stood a very large tree, with much sand under it. One day a Coyote was passing, and heard the Crows singing and dancing under this tree, and came up to watch them. They were dancing in a circle, and each Crow had upon his back a large bag.

"Crow-friends, what are you doing?" asked the Coyote, who was much interested.

"Oh, we are dancing with our mothers," said the Crows.

"How pretty! And will you let me dance, too?" asked the Coyote of the too-whit-lah-wid-deh crow (captain of the dance).

"Oh, yes," replied the Crow, "Go and put your mother in a bag and come to the dance."

The Coyote went running home. There his old mother was sitting in the corner of the fireplace. The stupid Coyote picked up a stick and struck her on the head, and put her in a bag, and hurried back to the dance with her.

The Crows were dancing merrily, and singing: "Ai nana, que-ée-rah, yue-ée-rah." ("Alas, Mama! you are shaking, you are shaking!") The Coyote joined the dance, with the bag on his back, and sang as the Crows did: "Ai nana, que-ée-rah, que-ée-rah."

But at last the Crows burst out laughing, and said, "What do you bring in your bag?"

"My mother, as you told me," replied the Coyote, showing them.

Then the Crows emptied their bags, which were filled with nothing but sand, and flew up into the tree, laughing.

The Coyote then saw that they had played him a trick, and started home, crying "Ai nana!" When he got home he took his mother from the bag and tried to set her up in the chimney-corner, always crying, "Ai nana, why don't you sit up as before?" But she could not, for she was dead.

When he found that she could not sit up any more, he vowed to follow the Crows and eat them all the rest of his life; and from that day to this he has been hunting them, and they are always at war.


Aesop: The Camel and Jupiter

The last fable I shared here was an aetiological story about how the tortoise got its shell. This fable is also aetiological, explaining how the camel came to have such short ears. The fable might also remind you about the peacock's complaint to Juno. In this case, though, the god is not so kind: he refuses the animal's request, and inflicts a punishment as well.

The story of the camel and Jupiter (Zeus) is attested in both the Greek and Latin Aesopic traditions, and there are several English translations to choose from.

Since my favorite illustration is the one by Francis Barlow, I decided to choose the poem by Aphra Behn that accompanies Barlow's illustration. I've modernized the 17th-century English spelling and punctuation to make it easier to read. I really want to transcribe all of her Aesopic poems; you can find out more about Aphra Behn's life and career at Wikipedia. (That Wikipedia article doesn't even mention her Aesop!)


For horns the Camel Jupiter implored,
With which so many beasts so well were stored.
The God, enragd, replied, "Thy forehead wears
Henceforth no horns, and, what is worse: no ears."
With what kind heaven bestows, be thou at rest,
For that knows where to place its bounty best.

~ ~ ~

The details of this image are so charming! The pyramid is there for local color, and you can also see the horned beasts that have aroused the camel's envy, including a unicorn! For a detailed view, check out the digital edition at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I have zoomed in on the unicorn, along with the other horned beasts, the unhappy camel (his ears now shortened), plus Jupiter riding on his eagle highlighted against the sun: