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The original, squashed down to read in about 15 minutes
Statue claimed to depict Aesop, Art Collection of Villa Albani, Rome
Tradition has it that Aesop was a slave in ancient Greece, though these moralising tales have been added to later many, many times. The Fables were translated into Latin by Phaedrus, a slave himself, around 25 BC.
Unless otherwise noted, all based on translations by Joseph Jacobs (1900) and GC Macaulay (1890). Abridged: GH
The Cock and The Jewel
A Cock was searching for food in the farmyard when suddenly he spied something shinning amid the straw. "Ho! ho!" said he, "that's for me," and soon rooted it out. It turned out to be a Jewel that had been lost in the yard. "You may be a treasure," said the Cock, "to men that prize you, but for me I would rather have a single barley-corn than a peck of Jewels."
Precious things are for those who prize them.
Woodcut from Steinhowel's edition of 1501
Of the Cok and of the precious stone
[William Caxton's version of 1484] As a Cok ones sought his pasture in the donghylle he fond a precious stone to whome the Cok sayd Ha a fayre stone and precious thow arte here in the fylth And yf he desyreth the had found the as I haue he should haue take the vp and sette the ageyne in thy fyrst estate but in vayne I haue found the For no thynge I haue to do with the ne no good I may doo to the ne thou to me
And thys fable sayd Esope to them that rede this book For by the cok is to vnderstond the fool whiche retcheth not of sapyence ne of wysedome as the Cok retcheth and setteth not by the precious stone And by the stone is to vnderstond this fayre and playsaunt book
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. "I have never yet been beaten," said he, "when I put forth my full speed. I challenge any one here to race with me."
The Tortoise said quietly, "I accept your challenge."
"That is a good joke," said the Hare; "I could dance round you all the way."
"Keep your boasting till you've beaten," answered the Tortoise. "Shall we race?"
So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning-post and could not run up in time to save the race. Then said the Tortoise:
Slow and certain wins the race.
The Lion's Share
The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided. "Quarter me this Stag," roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgement: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it."
"Humph," grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs; but he spoke in a low growl .
You may share the labours of the great, but you will not share the spoil
A Fox and Grapes
[Sir Roger L'Estrange's version of 1692] There was a Time when a Fox would have ventur'd as far for a Bunch of Grapes as for a Shoulder of Mutton; and it was a Fox of those Days, and that Palate, that stood gaping under a Vine, and licking his Lips at a most delicious Cluster of Grapes that he had spy'd out there; he fetch'd a hundred and a hundred Leaps at it, till at last, when he was as weary as a Dog, and found that there was no Good to be done; Hang ‘em (says he) they are as sour as Crabs; and so away he went, turning off the Disappointment with a Jest.
THE MORAL:‘Tis Matter of Skill and Address, when a Man cannot honestly compass what he would be at, to appear easy and indifferent upon all Repulses and Disappointments.
The Peacock and Juno
A Peacock once placed a petition before Juno desiring to have the voice of a nightingale in addition to his other attractions; but Juno refused his request. When he persisted, and pointed out that he was her favourite bird, she said:
Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything.
The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep's clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.
Appearances are deceptive.
The Dog in the Manger
A Dog looking out for its afternoon nap jumped into the Manger of an Ox and lay there cosily upon the straw. But soon the Ox, returning from its afternoon work, came up to the Manger and wanted to eat some of the straw. The Dog in a rage, being awakened from its slumber, stood up and barked at the Ox, and whenever it came near attempted to bite it. At last the Ox had to give up the hope of getting at the straw, and went away muttering:
Ah, people often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves
The Ass in the Lion's Skin
An Ass once found a Lion's skin which the hunters had left out in the sun to dry. He put it on and went towards his native village. All fled at his approach, both men and animals, and he was a proud Ass that day. In his delight he lifted up his voice and brayed, but then every one knew him, and his owner came up and gave him a sound cudgelling for the fright he had caused. And shortly afterwards a Fox came up to him and said: "Ah, I knew you by your voice."
Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words disclose a fool.
The Two Pots
Two Pots had been left on the bank of a river, one of brass, and one of earthenware. When the tide rose they both floated off down the stream. Now the earthenware pot tried its best to keep aloof from the brass one, which cried out: "Fear nothing, friend, I will not strike you."
"But I may come in contact with you," said the other, "if I come too close; and whether I hit you, or you hit me, I shall suffer for it."
The strong and the weak cannot keep company.
Avaricious and Envious
Two neighbours came before Jupiter and prayed him to grant their hearts' desire. Now the one was full of avarice, and the other eaten up with envy. So to punish them both, Jupiter granted that each might have whatever he wished for himself, but only on condition that his neighbour had twice as much. The Avaricious man prayed to have a room full of gold. No sooner said than done; but all his joy was turned to grief when he found that his neighbour had two rooms full of the precious metal. Then came the turn of the Envious man, who could not bear to think that his neighbour had any joy at all. So he prayed that he might have one of his own eyes put out, by which means his companion would become totally blind.
Vices are their own punishment.
The Goose With the Golden Eggs
One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.
Greed oft o'er reaches itself.
The Wind and the Sun
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin." So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
Kindness effects more than severity.
Hercules and the Waggoner
A Waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. "O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress," quoth he. But Hercules appeared to him, and said:
"Tut, man, don't sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel."
The gods help them that help themselves.
The Miser and His Gold
Once upon a time there was a Miser who used to hide his gold at the foot of a tree in his garden; but every week he used to go and dig it up and gloat over his gains. A robber, who had noticed this, went and dug up the gold and decamped with it. When the Miser next came to gloat over his treasures, he found nothing but the empty hole. He tore his hair, and raised such an outcry that all the neighbours came around him, and he told them how he used to come and visit his gold. "Did you ever take any of it out?" asked one of them.
"Nay," said he, "I only came to look at it."
"Then come again and look at the hole," said a neighbour; "it will do you just as much good."
Wealth unused might as well not exist.
Belling the Cat
Long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. "You will all agree," said he, "that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood."
This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: "That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?" The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said:
It is easy to propose impossible remedies
The Old Man and Death
An old labourer, bent double with age and toil, was gathering sticks in a forest. At last he grew so tired and hopeless that he threw down the bundle of sticks, and cried out: "I cannot bear this life any longer. Ah, I wish Death would only come and take me!"
As he spoke, Death, a grisly skeleton, appeared saying: "What wouldst thou, Mortal? I heard thee call me."
"Please, sir," replied the woodcutter, "would you kindly help me to lift this faggot of sticks on to my shoulder?"
We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.
The Eagle and the Arrow
An Eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whizz of an Arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the Arrow with which it had been pierced, it found that the shaft of the Arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. "Alas!" it cried, as it died,
We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction
The Buffoon and the Countryman
At a country fair there was a Buffoon who made all the people laugh by imitating the cries of various animals. He finished off by squeaking so like a pig that the spectators thought that he had a porker concealed about him. But a Countryman who stood by said: "Call that a pig's squeak! Nothing like it. You give me till tomorrow and I will show you what it's like." The audience laughed, but next day, sure enough, the Countryman appeared on the stage, and putting his head down squealed so hideously that the spectators hissed and threw stones at him to make him stop. "You fools!" he cried, "see what you have been hissing," and held up a little pig whose ear he had been pinching to make him utter the squeals.
Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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