The fables of Avianus and Aesop

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Ancient History from Primary Sources - Cover - Color - 1

Excerpts from Ancient History from Primary Sources: A Literary Timeline by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn

Many persons begin in classical literature with the fables of Aesop (Greek) and Avianus (Latin). These are suitable for all ages, young and old, however, each family has its own standards, and a parent should not assume that all literary selections meet their standards of appropriateness for their children.

Fl c. A.D. 400
Avianus wrote fables in Latin which were found in standard schoolbooks throughout the Middle Ages. Forty-two of his fables survive.

Avianus Fables

About the Four Oxen and the Lion
The story goes that there was onoe such loyalty of friendship among four immense oxen in the same meadows that when let out they never separated nor strayed apart, but would return from pasture together, still close friends. A great lion in the woods is said to have feared these oxen standing with their horns interlaced. Fear kept him from trying to procure prey and he shrunk from approaching them in their four-fold strength. But however reckless he was, in spirit he was still more savage in what he did; nevertheless he was not a match for such strength. Therefore he immediately begins to urge evil counsels — desiring to sever the united herd. Then after breaking their agreement by exasperating words, he falls upon the wretched oxen and tears them to pieces. One of these at the very last said: Whoever desires to lead a quiet life can learn a lesson from our death. Let him not fill his ready ears with misleading reports in too great haste nor break off friendship of long standing.

The Fir-tree and the Bramble Bush
A very comely fir-tree once made fun of a prickly bramble bush, and when they got into a quarrel about their appearance, the fir said it was a pitiable quarrel to have with those whom no title associated as equals. “For my tapering trunk rising into the clouds lifts its topmost branches straight to the stars. When I am set amidships on the open deck, on me is hung the canvas that the breeze fills. But because the thorns give you a disfigured shape, all men pass you by in scorn.” The bramble bush replied, “Now, in your joy you admit only your good qualities and you enjoy insulting me on account of my bad qualities, but when the menacing ax cuts down your beautiful branches, then how you will wish that you had my thorns!”

10th-century manuscript of Avianus’ fables — The Frog Physician and The Mischievous Dog

The Mischievous Dog
A Dog used to run up quietly to the heels of those he met, and to bite them without notice. His master sometimes suspended a bell about his neck, that he might give notice of his presence wherever he went, and sometimes he fastened a chain about his neck, to which was attached a heavy clog, so that he could not be so quick at biting people’s heels. The Dog grew proud of his bell and clog, and went with them all over the market-place. An old hound said to him: “Why do you make such an exhibition of yourself? That bell and clog that you carry are not, believe me, orders of merit, but, on the contrary, marks of disgrace, a public notice to all men to avoid you as an ill-mannered dog.” Those who achieve notoriety often mistake it for fame.

c. 620-560 B.C.
Aesop was a semi-legendary Greek writer and/or collector of 350 fables. He was a slave from Phrygia, or Lydia, and he served on the island of Samos before being freed.

Aesop Fables

The Frogs & the Ox
An Ox came down to a reedy pool to drink. As he splashed heavily into the water, he crushed a young Frog into the mud. The old Frog soon missed the little one and asked his brothers and sisters what had become of him. “A great big monster,” said one of them, “stepped on little brother with one of his huge feet!” “Big, was he!” said the old Frog, puffing herself up. “Was he as big as this?” “Oh, much bigger!” they cried. The Frog puffed up still more. “He could not have been bigger than this,” she said. But the little Frogs all declared that the monster was much, much bigger and the old Frog kept puffing herself out more and more until, all at once, she burst. Do not attempt the impossible.

Belling the Cat
The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day. Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said: “I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.” All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said: “I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?” It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.


The Town Mouse & the Country Mouse
A Town Mouse once visited a relative who lived in the country. For lunch the Country Mouse served wheat stalks, roots, and acorns, with a dash of cold water for drink. The Town Mouse ate very sparingly, nibbling a little of this and a little of that, and by her manner making it very plain that she ate the simple food only to be polite. After the meal the friends had a long talk, or rather the Town Mouse talked about her life in the city while the Country Mouse listened. They then went to bed in a cozy nest in the hedgerow and slept in quiet and comfort until morning. In her sleep the Country Mouse dreamed she was a Town Mouse with all the luxuries and delights of city life that her friend had described for her. So the next day when the Town Mouse asked the Country Mouse to go home with her to the city, she gladly said yes. When they reached the mansion in which the Town Mouse lived, they found on the table in the dining room the leavings of a very fine banquet. There were sweetmeats and jellies, pastries, delicious cheeses, indeed, the most tempting foods that a Mouse can imagine. But just as the Country Mouse was about to nibble a dainty bit of pastry, she heard a Cat mew loudly and scratch at the door. In great fear the Mice scurried to a hiding place, where they lay quite still for a long time, hardly daring to breathe. When at last they ventured back to the feast, the door opened suddenly and in came the servants to clear the table, followed by the House Dog. The Country Mouse stopped in the Town Mouse’s den only long enough to pick up her carpet bag and umbrella. “You may have luxuries and dainties that I have not,” she said as she hurried away, “but I prefer my plain food and simple life in the country with the peace and security that go with it.” Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

The Wolf & the Crane
A Wolf had been feasting too greedily, and a bone had stuck crosswise in his throat. He could get it neither up nor down, and of course he could not eat a thing. Naturally that was an awful state of affairs for a greedy Wolf. So away he hurried to the Crane. He was sure that she, with her long neck and bill, would easily be able to reach the bone and pull it out. “I will reward you very handsomely,” said the Wolf, “if you pull that bone out for me.” The Crane, as you can imagine, was very uneasy about putting her head in a Wolf’s throat. But she was grasping in nature, so she did what the Wolf asked her to do. When the Wolf felt that the bone was gone, he started to walk away. “But what about my reward!” called the Crane anxiously. “What!” snarled the Wolf, whirling around. “Haven’t you got it? Isn’t it enough that I let you take your head out of my mouth without snapping it off?” Expect no reward for serving the wicked.


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