Making an ass of Aesop's moral maze

  • @davidlister1
We think of `Aesop's Fables' as gentle little moral tales for children. But what about `The Camel who Shat in the River' and `The Beaver who Bit off his Private Parts'? These are not the Fables we grew up with. As David Lister explains, these are what the man actually wrote. A new book will show history's most famous fable maker to have a coarse and violent kink.

Robert Temple is a classical scholar. His wife, Olivia, is a translator. Together they decided to translate Aesop's Fables for a new version by Penguin Classics to be published later this month.

Meticulously, they sought out the last known edition of the Greek text, a version published in France in 1927, and began the two-year task of translating it from the Greek. Then they got a shock. Instead of the 250 or so fables that have always appeared in children's books in this country, there were over 350. And when the Temples looked more closely so their astonishment grew.

Many of the never before translated fables were coarse and brutal. And even some of the most famous ones had been mistranslated to give them a more comforting and more moral tone. What the Temples began to realise was that the Victorians had simply suppressed the fables which shocked them and effectively changed others.

Now, for the first time in Britain, we can read The Complete Fables. What becomes clear is that 2,600 years ago Aesop, whom we know as a children's writer, was no such thing. Instead he was a political and social satirist in ancient Greece with an edge so irreverent, pungent and occasionally crude as to have guaranteed him a place as a panellist on Have I Got News For You, if he were alive today.

According to Robert Temple: "Most of those children's editions of Aesop are carefully selected and so heavily rewritten and artificially expanded that they have only a tenuous connection with Aesop. At least 100 of the most interesting fables, namely the weirder mythological ones, appear never to have been translated into English at all, so that the fables as a whole have thus been `purged' or `whitewashed' and given a false image until now of a `classic'. But perhaps that is the reason: a classic is something which is arrived at by consensus, and the weirder of the Aesop fables might have destroyed that consensus pretty quickly if anybody but a Greek scholar had ever been able to read them.

"For the fables are not the pretty purveyors of Victorian morals that we have been led to believe. They are instead savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compassion, and lacking also in any political system other than absolute monarchy."

In translating the fables, the Temples were also meticulously precise in the terminology, revealing facts about the animals described - facts such as that household pets in ancient Greece were not the cats traditionally found in the fables, but domesticated polecats or house-ferrets. A fable which has become quite famous, about a cat which fell in love with a handsome young man and which was changed into a girl by Aphrodite, was thus not actually about a cat at all. The young man's paramour was a house ferret.

The fables, complete in English for the first time, are of great importance, says Robert Temple, both for a better understanding of our past and as studies of human nature. "The idea of representing human types as animals has the advantage of a profound simplicity, but is not simplistic. Anyone reading through the whole collection should be inspired to form a resolution to show more mercy in the future! Too many of the beasts meet with violent ends. The pungent American description of life, `It's a jungle out there!' could be taken as the motto of Aesop."

fables for adults

Examples of the newly-found tales:

The Camel Who Shat in the River

A camel was crossing a swiftly flowing river. He shat and immediately saw his own dung floating in front of him, carried by the rapidity of the current.

"What is that there?" he asked himself. "That which was behind me I now see pass in front of me."

Moral: This applies to a situation where the rabble and the idiots hold sway rather than the eminent and the sensible.

The Beaver

The beaver is a four-footed animal who lives in pools. A beaver's genitals serve, it is said, to cure certain ailments. So when the beaver is spotted and pursued to be mutilated - since he knows why he is being hunted - he will run for a certain distance, and he will use the speed of his feet to remain intact. But when he sees himself about to be caught, he will bite off his own parts, throw them, and thus save his own life."

Moral: Among men also, those are wise who if attacked for their money will sacrifice it rather than lose their lives.

The Asses Appealing to Zeus

One day, the asses tired of suffering and carrying heavy burdens and they sent some representatives to Zeus, asking him to put a limit on their workload. Wanting to show them that this was impossible, Zeus told them that they would be delivered from their misery only when they could make a river from their piss. The asses took this reply seriously and, from that day until now, whenever they see ass piss anywhere they stop in their tracks to piss too.

Moral: This fable shows that one can do nothing to change one's destiny.

The Hyenas

They say that hyenas change their sex each year and become males and females alternately. Now, one day a male hyena attempted an unnatural sex act with a female hyena. The female responded:

"If you do that friend, remember that what you do to me will soon be done to you."

Moral: This is what one could say to the judge concerning his successor, if he had to suffer some indignity from him.