India: Shell-Neck, Slim, and Grim

This Indian folktale is found in The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, translated by Arthur W. Ryder (which you can read free online). When things do not turn out well for the turtle, he has no one to blame but himself!

This story is found in both the Jataka and Panchatantra traditions of India, and thanks to La Fontaine, it became part of the Aesopic tradition later in Europe: The Tortoise Flying. You can find out more in this Wikipedia article.

The illustration below is from a 15th-century translation of the story into Latin; that book, called the Directorium Humanae Vitae, became an important conduit for Indian stories that entered into the European tradition. You can see more illustrations here, and the book itself is online at the University of Munich.


In a certain lake lived a turtle named Shell-Neck. He had as friends two ganders whose names were Slim and Grim.

Now in the vicissitudes of time there came a twelve-year drought, which begot ideas of this nature in the two ganders: "This lake has gone dry. Let us seek another body of water. However, we must first say farewell to Shell-Neck, our dear and long-proved friend."

When they did so, the turtle said: "Why do you bid me farewell? I am a water-dweller, and here I should perish very quickly from the scant supply of water and from grief at loss of you. Therefore, if you feel any affection for me, please rescue me from the jaws of this death. Besides, as the water dries in this lake, you two suffer nothing beyond a restricted diet, while to me it means immediate death. Consider which is more serious, loss of food or loss of life."

But they replied: "We are unable to take you with us since you are a water-creature without wings."

Yet the turtle continued: "There is a possible device. Bring a stick of wood."

This they did, whereupon the turtle gripped the middle of the stick between his teeth, and said: "Now take firm hold with your bills, one on each side, fly up, and travel with even flight through the sky, until we discover another desirable body of water."

But they objected: "There is a hitch in this fine plan. If you happen to indulge in the smallest conversation, then you will lose your hold on the stick, will fall from a great height, and will be dashed to bits."

"Oh," said the turtle, "from this moment I take a vow of silence, to last as long as we are in heaven."

So they carried out the plan, but while the two ganders were painfully carrying the turtle over a neighbouring city, the people below noticed the spectacle, and there arose a confused buzz of talk as they asked: "What is this cart-like object that two birds are carrying through the atmosphere?"

Hearing this, the doomed turtle was heedless enough to ask: "What are these people chattering about?"

The moment he spoke, the poor simpleton lost his grip and fell to the ground. And persons who wanted meat cut him to bits in a moment with sharp knives.

To take advice from kindly friends
Be ever satisfied:
The stupid turtle lost his grip
Upon the stick, and died.


India: The Otters and the Wolf

This Jataka story from India is found in More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbitt with illustrations by Ellsworth Young (which you can read free online). You can even listen to a LibriVox recording of this story: LibriVox audio.

The traditional name of this story is Dabbhapuppha-Jātaka, and it is about a jackal, not a wolf. The plot of the story may remind you of the Aesop's fable (found in La Fontaine) about the two men and the oyster.


illustration for the two otters and the wolf / jackal

One day a Wolf said to her mate, “A longing has come upon me to eat fresh fish.”

“I will go and get some for you,” said he and he went down to the river.

There he saw two Otters standing on the bank looking for fish. Soon one of the Otters saw a great fish, and entering the water with a bound, he caught hold of the tail of the fish. But the fish was strong and swam away, dragging the Otter after him.

“Come and help me,” the Otter called back to his friend. “This great fish will be enough for both of us!”

So the other Otter went into the water. The two together were able to bring the fish to land.

“Let us divide the fish into two parts.”

“I want the half with the head on,” said one.

“You cannot have that half. That is mine,” said the other. “You take the tail.”

The Wolf heard the Otters and he went up to them. Seeing the Wolf, the Otters said: “Lord of the gray-grass color, this fish was caught by both of us together. We cannot agree about dividing him. Will you divide him for us?”

The Wolf cut off the tail and gave it to one, giving the head to the other. He took the large middle part for himself, saying to them, “You can eat the head and the tail without quarreling.” And away he ran with the body of the fish.

The Otters stood and looked at each other. They had nothing to say, but each thought to himself that the Wolf had run off with the best of the fish.

The Wolf was pleased and said to himself, as he ran toward home, “Now I have fresh fish for my mate.”

His mate, seeing him coming, came to meet him, saying: “How did you get fish? You live on land, not in the water.”

Then he told her of the quarrel of the Otters. “I took the fish as pay for settling their quarrel,” said he.

~ ~ ~

In the traditional version, here is what one of the otters says at the end in rhyming verse:

But for our strife, it would have long sufficed us without fail:
But now the jackal takes the fish, and leaves us head and tail.


Aesop: The Dog and His Reflection

Yesterday I shared the fable of the jealous peacock, and today's fable is also about jealousy. In this case, it is a paradoxical case of a dog who is jealous of himself!

Here is a link to a blog with English translations and illustrations of this famous Aesop's fable, and here is my favorite English version; it's by Oliver Herford from his Herford Aesop:

A Dog, with a choice bit of meat
   That he was carrying home to eat,
Crossing a bridge, saw in the brook
   His own reflection, which he took
To be another Dog. "The Pig!
   His piece of meat is twice as big
As mine! Well, I'll soon let him see
  Which is the better Dog!" cried he;
And dropping his, without ado,
   To grab the other's meat he flew.
Meanwhile his own sank out of sight;
   Thus he lost both, which served him right!

Of the illustrations, I think my favorite is this one from Ogilby's Aesop of 1668. I really like how elaborate the reflected world is: you can see the dog and the meat reflected in the water, and also the bridge itself, and the tree, and so on. When we imagine things, that illusion can be so beguiling, and so we become our own worst enemy:

illustration of the dog and his shadow



Aesop: The Peacock and Juno

A fable I've been thinking about a lot lately is this story about everyone's special gifts, in the form of a lesson that the goddess Juno explains to the peacock. The peacock is jealous of the nightingale's voice, but Juno explains to the peacock that he has his own beauty and strengths; he should be content with his lot, and not be jealous of the other birds.

Most versions of the fable emphasize that idea that each of us has a "natural" lot in life, but for me the more important theme is jealousy: by comparing himself to others and looking at them with a jealous eye, the peacock is only making himself miserable.

Here is a link to a blog with English translations and illustrations, and here is my favorite English version; it's Elizur Wright's translation of La Fontaine. It features a threat from the goddess: not only is the peacock making himself miserable with his feelings of jealousy, but she is going to take away the good things she has given him if he does not change his attitude!


(1667 edition of Phaedrus) The Peacock and Juno

The peacock to the queen of heaven
Complain'd in some such words:
"Great goddess, you have given
To me, the laughing-stock of birds,
A voice which fills, by taste quite just,
All nature with disgust;
Whereas that little paltry thing,
The nightingale, pours from her throat
So sweet and ravishing a note,
She bears alone the honours of the spring."

In anger Juno heard,
And cried, "Shame on you, jealous bird!
Grudge you the nightingale her voice,
Who in the rainbow neck rejoice,
Than costliest silks more richly tinted,
In charms of grace and form unstinted, —
Who strut in kingly pride,
Your glorious tail spread wide
With brilliants which in sheen do
Outshine the jeweller's bow window?
Is there a bird beneath the blue
That has more charms than you?
No animal in everything can shine.
By just partition of our gifts divine,
Each has its full and proper share;
Among the birds that cleave the air,
The hawk's a swift, the eagle is a brave one,
For omens serves the hoarse old raven,
The rook's of coming ills the prophet;
And if there's any discontent,
I've heard not of it.
'Cease, then, your envious complaint;
Or I, instead of making up your lack,
Will take your boasted plumage from your back."

~ ~ ~

Some thoughts about the illustration. This illustration is from a 1667 edition of Phaedrus, and the Roman poet Phaedrus is our first written source for this story about the peacock and his divine patroness. It's not the prettiest illustration, but I think it is the most interesting. Across the top we can see Juno lounging in the clouds along with her husband, Jupiter. The peacock has ascended to the heavens in order to make his complaint to Juno, his patroness. You can see his beautiful tail trailing behind him; in other fables, the peacock is not a high-flyer, but he is flying pretty high here. He is looking towards Juno plaintively, and she is reaching out her hand in a gesture of denial. Then, just below the clouds we can see other birds flying along in the sky, and along with a small bird perched in a tree; presumably the small bird is the nightingale of whom the peacock is especially jealous. Then, down on the ground, is what makes the scene so interesting: there are five men standing and one man sitting next to a tree, and each of the men is different from one another in their clothing and what they are doing, along with the objects they are holding. One man is reading, another man is carrying a load on his head, there's one with a pitchfork and another with a hammer, and two men looking more aristocratic. In their own way, it looks like these men are there to represent the variety of human endowments and occupations, mirroring on earth the variety of birds that Juno is describing to the peacock up in the clouds.


Nigeria: Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky

In addition to sharing Aesop's fables at this blog, I also want to share fables and stories from other sources. This story below comes from Elphinstone Dayrell's Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria (which you can read free online).

This is an "ecological" fable about rising waters. The sun and the moon are very good-hearted, but they are also foolish, not thinking about the consequences of their actions.

I have adapted the story here to make it shorter; you can read the original version here.


(Sun and Moon from Pixabay)

The sun and his wife, the moon, used to live on the earth. The sun and the moon were friends with the water, and they often visited the water in his house, but the water did not come to visit the sun's house.

"Why do you not come visit us in our house, my friend?" asked the sun.

The water replied, "Your house is not big enough; if I come there with all my family, there will not be room for us all."

So the sun and the moon decided to build a bigger house. When they were finished, they invited the water to come visit. "I am coming," said the water. "Is there room?" The sun and the moon said yes, so the water came in, along with all the fish and the frogs and the other members of the water's family.

When the water was knee-deep in the house of the sun, he asked, "Is there room?" The sun and moon said yes, so the water kept coming.

When the water was waist-high, he asked, "Is there room?" The sun and moon said yes, so the water kept coming.

When the water was as high as a man's head, he asked, "Is there room?" The sun and moon climbed up on the roof of their house and said yes, so the water kept coming.

And when the water flowed over the top of the roof, the sun and the moon had to go live in the sky, and that is where they have been living ever since.


India: The Donkey in the Tiger's Skin

This Indian story comes from Arthur Ryder's translation of The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma (which you can read free online).

This story might remind you of the Aesop's fable about the donkey in the lion's skin. In this story, though, it is not the donkey but his master who comes up with the trick of using the tiger skin. The donkey is glad to go along with the trick because it allows him to eat and get fat. Another appetite, however, will put an end to the donkey's good fortune, as you will see:


Android app illustration for the donkey in the tiger's skin

There was once a laundryman named Clean-Cloth in a certain town. He had a single donkey who had grown very feeble from lack of fodder.

As the laundryman wandered in the forest, he saw a dead tiger, and he thought: "Ah, this is lucky. I will put this tiger-skin on the donkey and let him loose in the barley fields at night. For the farmers will think him a tiger and will not drive him out."

When this was done, the donkey ate barley to his heart's content. And at dawn the laundryman took him back to the barn. So as time passed, he grew plump. He could hardly squeeze into the stall.

But one day the donkey heard the bray of a she-donkey in the distance. At the mere sound he himself began to bray. Then the farmers perceived that he was a donkey in disguise, and killed him with blows from clubs and stones and arrows.

However skilful in disguise,
However frightful to the eyes,
Although in tiger-skin arrayed,
The ass was killed — because he brayed.