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:


Aesop: Zeus and the Tortoise

After the last post about the Indian fable of the flying turtle, I wanted to share a post about one of my favorite tortoise fables in Aesop. No, it is not the story of the tortoise and the hare; this is the story of how the tortoise got its shell.

I really like this story because I am, in fact, quite a homebody, so I can relate to the feelings of the tortoise in this story. She really doesn't want to go to the gods' wedding and, when she finally does show up, things do not go well at all!

This is not as well known as some other Aesop's fables, being originally attested only in the Greek tradition, not in Latin. You can find out more at the Wikipedia article, and the Theoi.com article on the nymph named Chelone (turtle) is also helpful.

Here is a link to a blog with English translations and illustrations, and here is my favorite English version; it's the late-17th-century version by Sir Roger L'Estrange, with an illustration from a 1660 edition of Aesop with engravings by Karel van Sichem. As the turtle has her shell in the illustration, that would be at the moment after Zeus has blasted her with the ironic punishment: the tortoise will now forever be at home, carrying her shell wherever she goes.


When the Toy had once taken Jupiter in the Head to enter into a State of Matrimony, he resolv'd, for the Honour of his Celestial Lady, that the whole World should keep a Festival upon the Day of his Marriage, and so Invited all Living Creatures, Tag, Rag, and Bob-tail, to the Solemnity of the Wedding.

They all came in very good Time, saving only the Tortoise.

Jupiter told him 'twas ill done to make the Company Stay, and ask'd him, Why so late?

Why truly, says the Tortoise, I was at Home, at my Own House, my dearly Beloved House, and "Home is Home let it be never so Homely."

Jupiter took it very Ill at his Hands, that he should think himself Better in a Ditch, than in a Palace, and so he pass'd this Judgment upon him; that since he would not be persuaded to come out of his House upon that occasion, he should never Stir abroad again from that Day forward, without his House upon his Head.

There's a Retreat of Sloth and Affection, as well as of Choice and Virtue: and a Beggar may be as Proud, and as happy too in a Cottage, as a Prince in a Palace.