Aesopís Fables: Stories As A Path To Wisdom
Years ago, I remember being called upon as a substitute teacher to cover a "literature" cluster in an elementary school. The assignment was for an extended period of many weeks, and it is during that time that I rediscovered the incredible value of "Aesopís Fables" - wonderful stories, filled with animal characters, which transmitted profound truths, insights, and moral lessons in the guise of childrenís tales! Aesop, of course, was an ancient Greek storyteller who became a legend in his own times, telling his tales to Croesus, the fabulously rich king of Lydia, who feel under his spell. It does not matter that many of these tales may originally have come from the East, or that Aesopís name is today eclipsed, in many parts of the world, by the work of Jean de la Fontaine, the French poet who utilized much of the same material as Aesop, and rewrote many of these fables in his own way.
I remember once hearing - and I wish I could remember exactly where - stories referred to as the "power tools of learning." In a school system known for restless, difficult kids, easily distracted and bored, sometimes plagued by short attention spans, the key to imparting knowledge, teachers were always told, was to "make" the knowledge interesting or relevant, to find some way to excite the kids about it. Well, kids love animals, and so, Aesopís Fables was a great way to go!
Even more than this, I am reminded of the work of one of the great "non-hypnotist" hypnotherapists of all time, Milton H. Erickson. As you may know, hypnotherapy is a healing modality which operates by guiding a subject into the state of hypnosis, a mental condition in which the conscious mind is "put to sleep", as it were, so that the subconscious mind, with its greater receptivity to healing suggestions, may be accessed directly by the therapist. Usually by means of a formal induction process, which may be based upon progressive relaxation, or some other form of relaxing the body and mind, the therapist brings the subject into the "hypnotic trance state", and then plants positive suggestions in his mind, meant to help him overcome problems such as addictions and dependencies (especially smoking), eating disorders, insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and some physical afflictions, as well. Some subjects, however, resist going into the state of hypnosis, which seems rather frightening to them (they are afraid of losing control). Enter Milton Erickson. Very much aware that the "hypnotic trance state" is really a natural state which we go into by ourselves every time that we daydream, or are transfixed by a story, or music, or give ourselves completely to a dance, or become totally absorbed in some form of exercise, like jogging or practicing martial arts kata, he developed a "back-door" way to "hypnotize" the subject, which was by means of story-telling. Not only would the stories he told mesmerize the listener, and bring the listener into this state of "natural trance", where "learning and openness to change" were magnified; Ericksonís stories, themselves, would often contain the healing message! As his method is described by Sidney Rosen (My Voice Will Go With You, p 26): "In Ďtelling storiesí Erickson was, of course following an ancient tradition. Since time immemorial, stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality. A bitter pill can be swallowed more easily when it is embedded in a sweet matrix. A straight moral preachment might be dismissed, but guidance and direction become acceptable when embedded in a story that is intriguing, amusing, and interestingly told. Towards this end, Ericksonís tales utilize[d] many effective storytelling devices, including the use of humor and the inclusion of interesting information, such as little-known medical, psychological, and anthropological facts. Therapeutic suggestions [were] interspersed in stories whose content [was] far removed both from the patientís concerns and the therapistís overt focus."
Now that I think of it, I am sure that Aesopís Fables, well-told, must carry the same potential for seducing and enlightening the listener. They must be a means of opening up the closed or disinterested mind, wherever and whenever it roams away from learning, to receive the vital wisdom which does so much to build the character and depth of the child, the man, and the nation.
How many of Aesopís tales are already a part of our cultural heritage!? We have the story of the wolf in sheepís clothing, which also became a metaphor used by Jesus: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheepís clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." (Matthew 7:15) We have the famous story of the hard-working ant and the lazy grasshopper (spend all your time playing, and youíll end up with nothing); the milkmaid and her pail (she dreamt of everything she would buy after she sold the milk, and spilled it on the way to market); the goose who laid the golden eggs (the greedy farmer cut the goose open to try to get all the gold out of her at once, and so forever lost the source of his wealth); the tortoise and the hare (the cocky rabbit underestimated the tortoise, went to sleep, and lost the race); the fox and the grapes (when he couldnít reach the grapes, he said, "I didnít want them anyway"); the oak and the reed (the reed survived the storm by bending in the wind, while the mighty oak which would not give way, was uprooted and brought down); the farmer and the snake (the farmer took pity on the frozen snake and brought it into his warm house, whereupon it revived and bit him).
Each story comes with a "moral", or an "application", which is really a summary of the basic lesson transmitted by the tale. For example, after concluding the telling of the story, the application given for "The Wolf In Sheepís Clothing" is: "Appearances are often deceiving." For "The Fox And The Grapes" it is: "Any fool can despise what he cannot get." For "The Oak And The Reed" it is: "It is better to bend than to break." In the context of teaching, I think it is actually best to present one or two stories as examples, and then, for all the rest, to have the kids find/make their own applications. And beyond that - to then have them make up other stories, or provide real-life examples or imaginary real-life scenarios, capable of illustrating or transmitting the same point. For example, in the case of the "Oak And The Reed", a real-life example brought up by one student involved the possibility of being robbed on the street (New York, what moreís to say?) In that case, the advantage of "bending" - giving up your money to an armed robber - over trying to stand up and resist, like the oak tree - was evident. Intelligently used, Aesopís fables are a real classroom superweapon - a weapon of empowering kids with knowledge, and helping to develop their ability to apply and use that knowledge in the world they live in.
(Note: Naturally, in an educational setting, in particular, the language and style of the fables - and there are many different adaptations and versions available - must be appropriate for the reading level and experience of the students.)
There are too many wonderful tales in Aesopís fabulous collection to even hint at here, but I will briefly mention some of my favorites:
Mercury And The Woodsman: In this story, a poor woodsman who made his living by felling trees for lumber, lost his grip on his ax, and helplessly, watched the means of his livelihood fly out of his hands and into the waters of a deep, fast-moving river. "O no, what will become of me, and my family, now?" he lamented. At that moment, the God Mercury appeared to him, and moved by the manís story, he decided to help him. Diving down to the bottom of the river, he soon returned with an ax made of solid gold. "Is this yours?" he asked the man.
"Alas, I wish it were," replied the honest woodsman, "but it is not."
Again, Mercury dove into the depths of the river, this time bringing up an ax of pure silver. "How about this?"
"No," the woodsman said, sadly shaking his head. "That is not my ax, either."
Finally, coming up from his third attempt, Mercury delivered the manís own simple but useful ax to him. "O thank you, thank you!" cried the man, at last reunited with his trusty ax.
Mercury was so impressed with the manís honesty, at this point, that he rewarded him by also giving him the gold and silver ax.
Some time later, a neighbor, hearing of the woodsmanís story, decided to try to play a trick on the god. He threw his ax into the river, whereupon he began to weep tears of false desperation. Sure enough, Mercury soon appeared, ready to come to his aid. When Mercury brought a golden ax up from the bottom of the river, however, this man said, "Yes, thatís it, thatís mine!" Whereupon Mercury told him, "You are a liar. To punish you, not only will I not let you have this golden ax, Iíll leave your own ax at the bottom of the river!"
Application: Honesty Is The Best Policy.
Believe it or not, this story had a big impact on me as a kid, and had a lot to do with the development of my character.
The Fox And The Crow: This story opens with a crow in a branch, a piece of cheese she had just found in her beak. A fox, observing her good fortune, came up beneath the tree, and told her, "Good morning, why how beautiful you look today, Miss Crow! Your feathers are so perfect, so brilliant. Youíre simply gorgeous. And I bet your must have a beautiful voice, too, to go with everything else! O, if only I could hear it, I am sure it would be music to my ears!" The vain crow was thrilled by all this flattery, and began to wiggle her tail feathers and to flap her wings with delight. Desiring to impress her admirer, the fox, even more, and to elicit still more praise from him, she opened her mouth to let him hear the voice he claimed to cherish, whereupon the piece of cheese that had been in her beak dropped down to the ground, where it was quickly snatched up by the fox. Mission accomplished! "Your singing isnít quite up to the cheese," he laughed, walking out on her foolish concert before it even had a chance to begin.
Application: Flatterers Are Not To Be Trusted.
The Frogs Desiring A King: Once upon a time, there was a pond full of frogs. Their life was really not that bad, playing around in the water, enjoying the beauty of their home. But one day, some of the frogs got it into their mind that what they needed was to have a king, the same as people, to watch over them, protect them, and provide them with moral guidance. Zeus, amused by the frogs, who sent a petition to him to find them a king, threw a log down into the pond for them to worship. But soon, the frogs were dissatisfied. "Our king just floats here, doing nothing," they complained. "We want a real king, an active king, a king who does something!"
Irritated now, by the frogsí foolishness and blind insistence, Zeus sent a stork down to them to be their new ruler, which, without a momentís delay, began devouring them. "Please - help us! Take away this awful monster!" the frogs pleaded with Zeus, begging him to take pity on them. But by now, Zeus could feel none for them. "This is your own doing," he told them, severely. "You wanted a king. Now you will have to make the best of what you have brought upon yourselves."
Application: Be careful what you ask for!
The House Dog And The Wolf: Once upon a time, as the full moon was shining down upon the land, a thin and starving wolf came upon a well-fed, healthy house dog, busy guarding his ownerís house. "How is it that you look so well?" the struggling wolf asked the dog, amazed by his robust appearance during these times of hardship. "The wilderness is especially harsh this year, I can hardly find a thing to eat."
"My dear cousin wolf," the house dog said, "the problem lies with the way you live. Itís not easy to make ends meet, without a steady job."
"And you have that?" the wolf asked, incredulously.
"You bet," said the house dog. "I guard my masterís house each night, frightening away the thieves; and for that, he feeds me well. As you can see. Just as much as that, I can always be sure of a roof above my head, whenever it rains or snows, while you - you must suffer so terribly in the cold!"
"Itís not easy," the wolf admitted.
"Well - why not join me?" the house dog asked, generously inviting the wolf to join the household. "I could use a helper, and Iím sure my master would take good care of you."
Excited and grateful at this new opportunity, the wolf began to follow the dog into the house, when, all of a sudden, he noted a strange mark upon the house dogís neck, and unable to repress his curiosity, finally asked him: "Dear friend - forgive me for asking - but how did you come by that mark upon your neck?"
"That? Oh, thatís nothing," the house dog assured him. "Just the mark left behind by the collar I wear during the day."
"Collar?" gasped the wolf.
"Certainly," said the dog. "You see, my master keeps me chained up by day, for I am such a good guard dog that he is a little wary of me, himself. But it doesnít matter, Iím free to roam about at night as I patrol his property."
But at this, the wolf suddenly seemed to lose interest in his new job.
"Hey - wait a minute - where are you going?!" asked the house dog, as the thin and hungry wolf turned away from him, and slowly trotted off, back towards the unforgiving forest from which heíd come. "The house is this way!"
But the wolf only called back, as he disappeared among the trees: "Good-bye, my poor, poor friend. Enjoy the fine food your master gives you, and the warmth of your home. As for me, Iíd rather endure hunger than wear your chains!"
Application: Lean Freedom Is Better Than Fat Slavery.
The Lion And The Mouse: In this appealing story, a mouse one day made the mistake of crawling next to the King of Beasts as he lay sleeping in the forest. Awakened, the mighty lion promptly trapped the irritating mouse beneath his fierce paw, and demanded, "How dare you, little mouse, to disturb my sleep?!"
"O please," begged the mouse, "forgive me! Donít kill me! It was a mistake. Give me a chance to live, and one day, I promise, I will repay you for your kindness!"
At that, the lion only laughed, saying, "What could you possibly do to help me, little mouse?" Nonetheless, feeling pity for the frightened, shaking little creature, he lifted up his paw and let him go.
It was not so very long after that, that the lion, wandering through his forest domain, fell into a trap set by hunters, and was captured in a net. Furious, defiant, he roared, a roar that sent shivers down the spine of every forest creature, but he could not find a way to free himself. That is when the little mouse, who had heard his outraged cry, came up to him where he lay tangled in the hunterís net.
"Dear Lion, Mighty King," he said. "Though you laughed at me when I said one day I would repay you for your act of mercy, that day has finally come." Whereupon he began, with his sharp rodentís teeth, to gnaw upon the powerful ropes that contained the majestic feline, until the lion was at last free to crawl out of the trap, and once more, assume his kingly life.
Application: No Act Of Kindness, No Matter How Small, Is Ever Wasted.
The Wind And The Sun: One day the sun and the wind got into an argument as to which of them was the stronger. Finally, they agreed to have a contest to settle the matter, once and for all. Spotting a lonely traveler walking down a country road, they decided that they would each attempt to force him to take off his coat. Whichever one of them had the most success would be considered the winner.
First, it was the windís turn. Taking the form of a gigantic dark cloud and puffing up his mighty cheeks, the wind let loose with a powerful blast that nearly knocked the traveler off his feet. Dust began to fill the air, and the temperature dropped by more than fifty degrees. Desperate, feeling that he was fighting for his life, the traveler crouched down upon the road, and gripped his coat, pulling it even more tightly about himself. For several moments more, the wind ruthlessly pounded him, but the traveler endured the fury of the storm until the wind, at last, gave up.
Then it was the sunís turn. Emerging from behind the dark clouds of the storm, the sun began to shine down upon the traveler with all of his light and warmth. The traveler, back on his feet, now, sighed with relief at the change of the weather, and as the warmth of the day increased, finally paused for a moment to take off his coat, and fling it over his shoulder, before continuing on his way.
Application: Persuasion Is Better Than Force.
The Eagle And The Arrow: One day an eagle was soaring high up in the sky, serene and sure of his control of sky and earth. But a daring hunter, high up on a hill, spied him sailing far above, and taking an arrow out of his quiver, fitted it into his bow, and let loose a perfect shot that pierced the eagleís breast, and brought him plummeting to the ground. As the eagle lay there dying, on the earth, waiting for the hunter to arrive, it opened its eyes just long enough to see that the arrow shaft which had dealt the death blow was fitted with one of its own feathers.
Application: How Often Do We Supply Our Enemies With The Means Of Our Own Destruction!
The Horse And The Laden Ass: This is another fine Aesop story, though in the context of the classroom, the word "ass" can often create problems - although, it can also lighten things up! (Why couldnít the people in olden days just call them "donkeys"?)
This tale begins with the journey of a man, who was accompanied by his horse and his ass, both used as beasts of burden to transport his goods. On most occasions, the ass was heavily laden, loaded down with weighty packs and burdens, while the horse was only lightly used. The man would walk on foot beside them, urging the ass on with a whip whenever needed.
On this day, the ass, who had been feeling ill for some time, turned to his companion, the horse, and said, "Please, friend horse, help me out a little today, will you? Iím not feeling well. Could you take a part of my heavy load and carry it for me, for a few miles, until I get my wind back? I just canít handle this much weight today."
But the horse said, "Thatís your problem, not mine." And merrily, with only the slightest burden of his own to carry, he continued on his way.
Silently, the ass pushed on, as was his nature, until finally, maybe a mile down the road, he suddenly collapsed. Surprised, the man ran up to him, kicking him at first, before he discovered, to his great dismay, that the ass would not rise, could not rise, because it was dead.
Not about to lose his goods, the man promptly removed the great burden from the dead assí back, and loaded it onto the horse, over whose back he also draped the body of the fallen beast. "Alas," moaned the horse, realizing what he had done. "By refusing to bear my fair share of the load, I must now carry it all!"
Application: Selfishness Carries With It Its Own Punishment.
I hope you enjoyed this small taste of fables, and promise you, there is much more where these came from!
As for myself, I am so grateful that Aesopís Fables were a part of my childhood, a part of my character-creation and growth. Today, though I seldom think of them, the truths and lessons of those brilliant little fantasies have become a part of who I am, a part of my soul. Traces of those colorful, sometimes beautiful and sometimes foolish animals - the mice, the frogs, the foxes, the wolves, the lions, the crows, and the storks - persist within, helping to guide me down the hard road of real life. Somehow, itís reassuring to know that all those wonderful stories, received in the sweetness of childhood, have not been killed by childhoodís end, but remain, helping me in my struggle, not to lose my way, or lose myself.
May Aesop and his wonderful universe - if they are not already - become a part of your life, too!
REFERENCES: Aesopís Fables (Illustrated Junior Library, Grosset & Dunlap)
My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, by Sidney Rosen.
Weapons of Depth Contents