Fables Compared: The Case of Ancient Greek ‘Sybaritic’ Tales

2023.11.02 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. This pre-edited standalone essay, included in a series of pamphlets published online and also in print (“on-demand”), consists of three parts.

Part I and Part II, rewritten from essays first posted in 2019.05.31 and 2019.06.11, are the basis for a pre-edited presentation, dated November 2, 2023, for the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, at Session I-11, “Premodern Fables in a Comparative Frame.” A printed version of the presentations for that session, edited by Neguin Yavari, is already being planned, to be published by the Ilex Foundation in a series distributed by Harvard University Press, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/collection.php?cpk=1222.

Part III here is rewritten from an essay first posted in 2019.06.07; this part is not presented at the Meeting of November 2, 2023.

Part I: A would-be Aesopic werewolf

§0. In a work of mine on fables, dating back to 2011, I noted a distinction made in the ancient world between two kinds of fable. In the first kind, ordinarily known as the ‘Aesopic’ fable, the storytelling concentrates on animals as characters—from here on I refer to them generically as beasts—whereas the characters we find in the second kind of fable, known as ‘Sybaritic’, are ordinarily humans, not beasts. In what follows, I analyze briefly a fable that seems Sybaritic on the outside but reveals Aesopic elements in the deep structure of its storytelling. The story is commonly known as The Thief and the Innkeeper, but the first of the two characters, when we examine the subtext, is not just a thief: more than that, he is a would-be werewolf, that is, a man who could turn into a wolf in other versions of the story. My analysis of this fable is intended to show the usefulness of approaching comparatively the beast fables attributed loosely to Aesop. A comparative approach helps understand such fables not only in their prosaic phases but also, more generally, in the broader context of ancient Greek songmaking.

Photo of Alex Stevens as a werewolf from the supernatural daytime drama Dark Shadows. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
From the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel’sche Weltchronik). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1a. First, I offer some background. The work I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Nagy 2011 (see the Bibliography), is an extension of earlier work, Nagy 1990a (11§21 = pp. 324–325, with n59; §35 = pp. 334–335), where I first noted the distinction made by the ancients between Aesopic and Sybaritic fables. As we read in the scholia for the Birds of Aristophanes (471), Sybaritic fables were distinct from Aesopic fables in that they featured talking humans as the main characters, not talking beasts. It is relevant, as I show in the earlier work I just mentioned, Nagy 1990a (again, 11§21 = pp. 324–325, 11§35 = pp. 334–335), that the prose of Herodotus frequently refers to and even engages in a Sybaritic mode of making fables. Then I argued in the later work, Nagy 2011 (§§99–120), that both the Sybaritic and the Aesopic kinds of fables could be composed not only as prose but also as poetry or even as song. Not only that: I also argued that sung fables represent the oldest attested form of Greek fable-making. This aspect of my argumentation, about fable-making as song-making, is a subject to which I will return in Part II.

§1b. Second, I now present the text of The Thief and the Innkeeper as edited by Perry (1952), along with my working translation (I also include a small apparatus, where I disagree with Perry about some minor textual details):

Fable 419 ed. Perry (= Fable 301 ed. Hausrath), taken from the Codex Laurentianus LVII 30:

κλέπτης κατέλυσεν ἔν τινι πανδοχείῳ. διέμενεν δὲ ἐκεῖ ἡμέρας τινὰς προσδοκῶν κλέψαι τι. ὡς δὲ οὐκ ἠδύνατο τοῦτο ποιῆσαι, μιᾷ τῶν ἡμερῶν ἰδὼν τὸν πανδοχέα ἐνδυθέντα χιτῶνα ὡραῖον καὶ καινὸν—ἦν γὰρ ἑορτή—καὶ καθεζόμενον πρὸ τῆς πύλης τοῦ πανδοχείου καὶ οὐδένα ἄλλον τυχόντα ἐκεῖ, ἐπελθὼν[1] καὶ ὁ κλέπτης ἐκάθισεν πλησίον τοῦ πανδοχέως καὶ ἤρξατο διηγεῖσθαι μετ’ αὐτοῦ. καὶ διηγούμενοι ὥραν ἱκανὴν ἐχασμήσατο[2] ὁ κλέπτης καὶ ὁμοῦ μετὰ τὸ χασμῆσθαι[3] ὠρυᾶτο ὥσπερ λύκος. ὁ δὲ πανδοχεύς φησι πρὸς αὐτόν· “τί οὕτως ποιεῖς;” καὶ ὁ κλέπτης ἀπεκρίθη· “νῦν ἀναγγελῶ σοι· ἀλλὰ δέομαί σου, ἵνα φυλάξῃς τὰ ἱμάτιά μου· ἐνταῦθα γὰρ καταλείψω. ἐγώ, κύριέ μου, οὐκ οἶδα, πόθεν μοι ἐπέρχεται τὸ χασμῆσθαι[4] οὕτως, ἢ διὰ τὰς ἁμαρτίας μου ἢ διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν, οὐ γινώσκω—ὅταν οὖν χασμηθῶ[5] τρεῖς βολάς, γίνομαι λύκος ἐσθίων ἀνθρώπους.” καὶ ταῦτα εἰπὼν ἐχασμήσατο[6] ἐκ δευτέρου καὶ πάλιν ὠρυᾶτο καθάπερ καὶ τὸ πρῶτον. ἀκούσας οὖν ταῦτα ὁ πανδοχεὺς καὶ πιστεύσας τοῦ κλέπτου ἐφοβήθη καὶ ἀναστὰς ἠβούλετο φυγεῖν. ὁ δὲ κλέπτης δραξάμενος αὐτὸν τοῦ χιτῶνος παρεκάλει αὐτὸν λέγων· “ἀνάμεινον, κύριέ μου, καὶ λαβὲ τὰ ἱμάτιά μου, ἵνα μὴ ἀπολέσω αὐτά.” καὶ παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα ἤρξατο χασμῆσθαι[7] ἐκ τρίτου. ὁ δὲ πανδοχεὺς φοβηθείς, μήπως φάγῃ αὐτόν, κατέλιπεν τὸν ἑαυτοῦ χιτῶνα καὶ εἰσελθὼν δρομαίως[8] εἰς τὸ πανδοχεῖον κατησφαλίσατο εἰς τὸ ἐνδότερον. καὶ ὁ κλέπτης λαβὼν τὸν χιτῶνα ἀπῆλθεν. οὕτω πανθάνουσιν οἱ τὰ μὴ ἀληθῆ πιστεύοντες.

A thief checked in at an inn. He was staying there for several days, expecting to steal something, but he wasn’t able to. Then, one day, he spotted the innkeeper wearing a beautiful new khiton—you see, there was a festival going on. There he was, sitting in front of the entrance to the inn. As it happened, no one else was there, and so the thief went up and also sat down there, right next to the innkeeper, and he began to strike up a conversation with him. They were conversing for quite a while and now the thief opened his mouth, and, keeping his mouth wide open, he started to howl just like a wolf. The innkeeper says to him: “What is this, what are you doing?” The thief replied: “Well, I will tell you now. But first I must ask you to guard my clothes, since I will leave them right here. I don’t know, sir, what’s getting into me when I go open-mouth like this. It may be either because of sins I committed or for some other such reason. I just don’t know. In any case, whenever I go wide-open-mouth three times, I turn into a wolf that eats humans.” After saying this, he went wide-open-mouth a second time and, once again, he began howling just as before. The innkeeper, hearing this and believing the thief, was terrified, and he stood up, wanting to run away. But the thief grabbed him by the man’s khiton and called out to him, saying: “Wait, sir, and take my clothes, so that I won’t lose them.” And, as he was calling out to him, he opened his mouth wide and, with mouth wide open, he started to howl for the third time. But the innkeeper, terrified as he was and fearing that he would be eaten, left behind his own khiton and, entering the inside of the inn at full speed he barricaded himself there. Meanwhile the thief took the khiton and went off. So [the moral of the story is]: this is what happens to those who believe things that are not true.

§2. On the surface, this fable is purely Sybaritic—but only if we opt for a simplistic way of reading the story. In terms of such a reading, this story features one human in the act of duping another human by pretending that he can turn into a beast that eats humans. And there is no real beast in the story, is there? The thief’s story about a man who turns into a man-eating wolf cannot be believed, can it? You get duped if you believe a story like that. That is the moral of the story, isn’t it? But what if the story, in terms of the story itself, is true? What if humans can turn into beasts that eat other humans? Then the moral of the story becomes double-edged: don’t believe what is not believable—but look out if it’s believable. Suppose the thief was truly a werewolf, that is, a man who turns into a wolf and eats other humans. Certainly the innkeeper believed the story when it was told to him by the would-be werewolf. And if he was right to believe the story, then he did the right thing to run away: the thief may have stolen his finery, but losing your finery is far better than losing your life to a wolf, if the thief is truly a wolf.

§3. In fact, wolves in beast fables are thieves in their own right. A most revealing example is Aesop Fable 234, where a wolf gains the trust of a shepherd by not slaughtering and eating the sheep in the shepherd’s flock—that is to say, the wolf abstains while the shepherd is present, but he turns back to his thievishly predatory ways whenever the shepherd is absent, thus stealing the property of humans by surreptitiously eating their sheep. So also the thief who stole the finery of the innkeeper in Aesop Fable 419 may have been a such a wolf—in disguise. Now, after his successful theft, this thief will have better clothes to wear the next time he turns into a wolf.

§4. As we know from folklore about the generic werewolf—the etymology of the English word is ‘man-wolf’—he is in the habit of stripping naked and leaving his clothes behind when he starts his metamorphosis into a wolf. My favorite example comes from the “tombstones scene” in Petronius Satyricon 62, where the narrator tells what happened to him while he was gazing at tombstones along the roadside:

Deinde ut respexi ad comitem, ille exuit se et omnia vestimenta secondum viam posuit. Mihi anima in naso esse, stabam tanquam mortuus. At ille circumminxit vestimenta sua, et subito lupus factus est. Nolite me iocari putare; ut mentiar, nullius patrimonium tantifacio. Sed, quod coeperam dicere, postquam lupus factus est, ululare coepit et in silvas fugit.

Then, as I look back at my companion, he has stripped naked, placing all his clothes by the roadside. My heart goes right up into my nose. I just stood there, as if I were dead. Meanwhile, he pisses a circle around his clothes and then, all of a sudden, he has become a wolf. And don’t think I’m joking. I wouldn’t lie about this even for the sake of some great fortune. Anyway, as I was about to say, here is what happened after he turned into a wolf: he started to howl [ululare] and he ran off into the woods.

§5. Continuing at Satyricon 62, the narrator proceeds with his story. Without explaining why he did so, he says he reached for the clothes abandoned by his companion and tried to take them—only to find that these clothes had turned into stone. Frightened to death, the narrator now leaves the scene and makes his way to his destination—to an inn where he has been having an affair with a woman named Melissa, who is the innkeeper’s widow. Melissa tells our narrator that he has just missed a moment of terror at the inn: a wolf stole into the sheep-pen there and slaughtered some sheep, but before he got away, he was wounded in the neck by a throw of a spear. Next morning, after spending the night at the inn, our narrator makes his way back to the primal scene of the metamorphosis, but he finds no clothes there. Instead, all there is to be seen now is a pool of blood. Again frightened to death, the narrator now goes home, where he finds his companion languishing in a sickbed, attended by a physician who is tending a wound in the man’s neck. Our narrator finally reaches his conclusion: this man must be a versipellis. This Latin word, conventionally translated as ‘werewolf’, means literally ‘he whose hide has turned’—a meaning that I have analyzed comparatively in other work (Nagy 1990b:264–265; also 155–156). At this point, the story about the “tombstone scene” comes to an end, and the narrator concludes by swearing that the story is true, not false.

§6. Here I circle back to the moral of the story in Aesop Fable 419, The Thief and the Innkeeper. On the surface, the moral is saying here: don’t be duped by stories that are not true. But now we see that, from a comparative point of view, the story of the thief is ‘true’ in terms of the folklore surrounding werewolves. So the fable is not just Sybaritic, involving characters that are human only. It is also Aesopic, involving a beast who navigates between Sybaritic and Aesopic views of reality. The would-be werewolf in Aesop Fable 419 is true to his self as a man, since he cares about the clothes he leaves behind whenever he changes identities from man to wolf. And he would prefer to wear finer clothes each time his identity changes back from wolf to man. That is why he makes the gesture of asking the innkeeper to hold on to the clothes he now wears as a would-be man. But the would-be werewolf in this fable is also true to his self as a beast, since his mouth-wide-open rictus, which presumably shows his teeth, verifies his identity as the beast he becomes as he starts his howling all over again.

Part II: The case of a story about Aesop and a barking dog in the Wasps of Aristophanes

§0. In Part II here, I pick up from where I left off in Part I, where I studied the possibilities of convergence as well as divergence between fables that focus primarily on beasts as talking characters and other fables where the only talking characters are humans. Here I extend the study, analyzing a special kind of convergence that we find in a fable retold by a character featured in a comedy of Aristophanes. The fable involves Aesop himself as one of the only two characters featured in the story, and he is actually the only talking character in this particular case, since the other character does not talk at all but only barks: she is a nasty beast of a dog who threatens to attack Aesop, barking at him furiously. It is as if Aesop were some devious thief—the kind we see in the illustration for this posting.

The dog and the thief (n.d.). Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. Two questions arise about the fable under study here: first, can we say that the story being told is really a beast fable if the beast is not a talking character, and, second, can we say that this story is really an Aesopic fable if Aesop himself happens to play the role of a featured character in the story? The answer to both these questions is positive—but only if we approach the existing evidence from a comparative point of view. And a vital aspect of that evidence is what the text of a comedy by Aristophanes can tell us about a primary historical context for the practice of retelling fables. As we will see, such a context is the symposium—by which I mean the kind of elite symposium where aristocrats perform fables as a specialized aspect of what can most generally be described as verbal art derivable from songmaking.

§2. From now on, I will refer to the fable under study here as “Aesop and the Bitch,” printed as Aesop Fable 423 in the edition of Perry (1952). This fable is attested only in the Wasps of Aristophanes, a comedy originally produced in 422 BCE as a one-time performance at the seasonally recurring Athenian festival known as the Lenaia. Before I analyze the context of the fable, I start by simply quoting the text, together with my working translation (Aristophanes Wasps 1401–1405):

|1401 Αἴσωπον ἀπὸ δείπνου βαδίζονθ’ ἑσπέρας |1402 θρασεῖα καὶ μεθύση τις ὑλάκτει κύων. |1403 κἄπειτ’ ἐκεῖνος εἶπεν· “ὦ κύον κύον, |1404 εἰ νὴ Δί’ ἀντὶ τῆς κακῆς γλώττης ποθὲν |1405 πυροὺς πρίαιο, σωφρονεῖν ἄν μοι δοκεῖς.”

|1401 One evening, when Aesop was walking along after having taken his leave from a dinner, |1402 a bitch, audacious drunkard, started barking at him. |1403 And that famous man said: “Bitch, bitch, |1404 I swear by Zeus, if you could somehow use that nasty tongue of yours |1405 to get paid off in wheat, then I think you would be sensible.”

§3. Starting at §5, I will proceed to analyze what this fable ultimately means. My analysis will include restatements from an earlier work of mine, “A closer look at Aesopic fables in Aristophanes,” which was part of a lengthy online essay, “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop,” listed as Nagy 2011 in the Bibliography below.

§3a. In what follows from this point at §3a all the way until the end of §3c, I offer some bibliographical background that readers may wish to skip for now.

§3b. My online essay “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop,” to which I refer as Nagy 2011, reappeared in a printed version, Nagy 2015, published in a collection of essays dealing with the important matter of applying diachronic perspectives in classical studies (ed. González 2015). In the printed version (Nagy 2015), the content of the original paragraphs §§99–120 of the online version (Nagy 2011) is repeated only in abridged form, and without quotations from the relevant Greek texts. From the original sequence in the online version (Nagy 2011), §§99–120, the only paragraphs still represented in the printed version (Nagy 2015) are §§99–100, §105, §§116–117, and §§119–120.

§3c. In what follows further below here at the new paragraphs numbered §§9–14, I will restore some parts of the content that is missing from the printed version. For logistical reasons, however, the restoration at this point will extend from §109 (Nagy 2011) only through §114, thus excluding for now what follows from §115 (Nagy 2011) through §120. Then, in what follows even further below here at the new paragraphs numbered §§15–19, I will redeploy a rewritten version of what I argued in (Nagy 2011) §§105–107 and §101.

§4. Before I have anything more to say about the Wasps of Aristophanes, I should note in advance that I have on a few rare occasions reworded the relevant wordings in the online version as found in Nagy 2011. I highlight here only two examples. First, my translation ‘an audacious and drunken bitch’ at line 1402 of the Wasps in the original online version and in the printed version has been redone as ‘a bitch, audacious drunkard’. Second, in my analysis of references being made in the Wasps to the fifth-century politician Cleon of Athens, I have stopped using the term populist as a synonym for demagogue with reference to this historical figure. Back in 2011, when I was using this term in my analysis, I never imagined how such a word would get to be reused and even abused at the time of my writing later, in 2019, and still later. It seems that the term populist has by now been claimed as a positive attribute by nationalist demagogues who manipulate local populations in their nations by inciting them to fear and hate extra-nationals. Well, Cleon may have been a demagogue, but he was no populist in the current sense that I have just described. In any case, I choose to consider only in historical terms the ridiculing of Cleon as a demagogue in the comedies of Aristophanes.

§5. That said, I can now proceed to analyze the context of Aesop Fable 423, “Aesop and the Bitch,” as retold at lines 1401–1405 in the Wasps of Aristophanes. And I start by highlighting a fact that has become for me a cornerstone of my overall argumentation. It concerns a detail that emerges from an overall reading of this comedy. The fact is, the character who is now retelling the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch” has learned how to perform such a retelling only because he had participated, the evening before, in a symposium.

§6. There is a back story that tells about what happened at this symposium. The story is told at lines 1299–1321 of the Wasps, and it involves the same character who later on retells the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch” at lines 1401–1405. But the teller of the back story at lines 1299–1321 is a different character: he is a slave who belonged to the family of the man who went to the symposium. The slave had accompanied his master, and thus he became a witness to everything that happened at this symposium, which took place on the evening that preceded his master’s performance of the fable as quoted at lines 1401–1405. And it is evident from the slave’s story that his master had attended this symposium with the expectation of learning there, as a newcomer to the ways of symposia, the art of retelling fables.

§7. From our reading of the comic story told by the eyewitness at lines 1299–1321 of the Wasps, we can see that this symposium, organized and attended by elite Athenians who evidently prided themselves on their cultural sophistication, turned out to be too much for our newcomer. He failed to control his sympotic drinking, and his drunkenness severely impaired his sympotic discourse, thus revealing all the more his lack of sophistication, which was bound to offend his fellow symposiasts. The more this character tried to blend in with the other characters attending, the more offensive he became. As the story proceeds, we see that our newcomer utterly failed as a symposiast.

§8. This is not to say that the elites attending this symposium were by contrast successful symposiasts. In the end, not a single one of the characters in this story about the symposium—neither the unsophisticated outsider nor the ultra-sophisticated insiders—escape the ridicule created by the story itself. But, in any case, it is the story of the slave at lines 1299–1321 of the Wasps that contextualizes the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch” as retold at lines 1401–1405 of the comedy.

§9 [via old §109 in Nagy 2011] The person who is retelling the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch” is the main character in the Wasps of Aristophanes. And this same person, as we have just seen, had been the unsophisticated character in the comic story told by the slave about the symposium attended by his master. Our main character has a comic name, Philocleon, which means ‘the one who loves Cleon’, and he is the antithesis of a sophisticated character by the name of Bdelycleon, who is the son of Philocleon and whose own comic name means ‘the one who is disgusted with Cleon’. The unsophisticated father Philocleon is a partisan of the radical democrat Cleon, while the sophisticated son Bdelycleon is an elitist reactionary who takes the side of anyone opposed to Cleon. In this comedy of Aristophanes, produced in the year 422 BCE, a prime political target for elitist reactionaries like the character Bdelycleon is the Athenian system of jury duty, which had been radically reshaped by Cleon in his role as the self-declared champion of common people.

§10 [via old §110] Earlier in the comedy the elitist son had already managed to persuade the anti-elitist father to abandon his democratic addiction. From now on, the father will no longer spend all his time as a juror in Cleon’s jury system. Now the father will become an elitist reactionary, like his son. But once Philocleon is persuaded to go over to the side of the elites, he becomes even more elitist than Bdelycleon. In a comic reversal of roles, the father Philocleon can now take on the role of a childish son while the son Bdelycleon can now take on the role of a somewhat more sensible father. Whereas Philocleon as a juror had been an advocate of common people, he can now become a noisy parody of the elitist reactionaries.

§11 [via old §111] In the story told by the slave (Wasps 1299–1321), we see how Philocleon gets drunk and rowdy while attending the symposium. And then, on his way back home, he gets into violent fights with common people he happens to encounter along the way (1322–1323). Then, the day after, Philocleon is confronted by the same common people he had assaulted during his nighttime rampage, and he is being served summonses by these people. So Philocleon is now faced with the prospect of having to appear in court to answer charges and be judged by the same kinds of jurors he once had been himself before he went over to the other side.

§12 [via old §112] The first claimant to confront Philocleon with legal threats is a woman whose profession is selling bread, and she accuses him of violently knocking to the ground the loaves of bread she was carrying in her breadbasket. The alleged deed was committed by Philocleon in his drunken state of wanton violence as he was making his way home after attending the symposium (Wasps 1388–1391, 1396–1398). Philocleon, now hoping to avoid being taken to court for damages, tries to assuage the angry woman (1393–1395). He does so by using, as he describes them, logoi dexioi ‘dexterous words’ (1394 λόγοι … δέξιοι). He announces to her that he will now deliver a discourse, a logos, that is kharieis ‘graceful, elegant’ (1398–1399 λόγον … χαρίεντα). This word kharieis was used in the classical era with reference to measuring various different degrees of sophistication in the practice and understanding of the verbal arts by sophistai ‘sophists’, as we see for example from the context of Isocrates [12] Panathenaicus 18–19. And the same word is applied by the figure of Protagoras in Plato’s Protagoras 320c to his telling of a fable at a symposium attended by elites, including a youthful Socrates. In the present context as well, the character of Philocleon is trying to act like a sophisticated member of elite society by retelling a fable. And it is at this point that Philocleon narrates the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch,” which I have already quoted. Of course the fable as he tells it is not at all ‘dexterous’, not at all ‘graceful’ or ‘elegant’. Just the opposite. And that is because the application of the fable is disastrously inappropriate and even malaprop. It is bad enough for the words of Philocleon to set up a parallelism between an angry bitch and the angry woman who had lost the bread she was selling, but the drawing of parallels gets even worse, since the angry bitch is now described further as methusē, a ‘drunkard’ (1402).

§13 [via old §113] Though Philocleon would have no motive here for insulting the woman, he manages to insult her anyway. In his pretentious attempt to assuage her by resorting to the sophisticated discourse of telling fables, he is stuck with using words that are typical of that discourse, and those words will only get him into further trouble. I now give three examples of such wording, which are all typical of the fable.

§13a [via old §113a] We know for a fact from other Aesopic fables that the word methusos ‘drunkard’ used here to describe the bitch who barks angrily at Aesop is part of the vocabulary of fables (as in Fable 246 ed. Perry, “The Woman and her Drunkard [methusos] Husband”) as also of comedy (Aristophanes Clouds 555).

§13b [via old §113b] And we also know from the evidence of Aesopic fables that the barking of dogs is associated primarily with anger: in the fable “The Years of Humans” (Fable 105.13 ed. Perry), the words used to describe dogs, ὀργίλους καὶ ὑλακτικούς ‘angry and barking’, highlight such an association. Further, as we read in traditional descriptions of potentially comic situations, aristocrats are prone to experiencing flashes of anger in public spaces whenever they experience chance encounters there with drunkards or barking dogs or other such annoyances (Plutarch On the controlling of anger 460f): ἀλλὰ καὶ πανδοκεῦσι καὶ ναύταις καὶ ὀρεωκόμοις μεθύουσι πολλάκις ὑπ’ ὀργῆς συμπίπτομεν οἰόμενοι καταφρονεῖσθαι, καὶ κυσὶν ὑλακτοῦσι καὶ ὄνοις ἐμβάλλουσι χαλεπαίνομεν ‘we often get angry, feeling that we are being disrespected, whenever we get into nasty encounters with beggars or sailors or drunkard mule-drivers, and we are similarly irked by barking dogs or by donkeys that bump into us’.

§13c [via §113c]. Finally, we can see that barking and getting drunk go together in comic descriptions of drunkards: for example, the comically drunken Herakles in the Alcestis of Euripides barks (760 ὑλακτῶν) rather than sings as he guzzles vast quantities of intoxicating wine (757 μέθυ).

§14 [via old §114] In short, the words used by the character of Philocleon in the Wasps (1401–1405) when he narrates the fable about ‘an audacious and drunkard bitch’ who barks at Aesop are all compatible with the world of fable, but they are comically incompatible with the situation of Philocleon himself. The only part of the fable that can be made compatible with his situation is where Aesop says that the bitch would be well advised to use her barking to get wheat. At least, this part is compatible to the extent that Aesop recommends wheat as a form of compensation. After all, wheat would be a suitable compensation for the woman who is suing Philocleon, since wheat is presumably the primary ingredient of the bread that she sells for a living. But the problem is, the intended parallel brings with it an unintended parallel. The intended parallelism between the need for wheat in the fable and the need for wheat in the present situation brings with it an unintended parallelism between the bitch in the fable and the woman in the present situation. The woman is of course outraged when she hears that a parallel has been drawn between her and the angry bitch. So she responds to Philocleon by saying in effect: “This is adding insult to injury … so now you are saying I’m an angry bitch!” And so, instead of succeeding in his attempts at assuaging the woman who is angrily threatening to take him to court, Philocleon has by now unintentionally guaranteed the certainty of his being sued for damages.

§15 [via old §104] I emphasized a moment ago that there is an obvious reason, in the retelling of the fable, for mentioning wheat in the present situation. But now I must emphasize that there is also a reason, a far less obvious reason, for mentioning wheat in the story of the fable “Aesop and the Bitch.” The scholia for the Wasps of Aristophanes (at 1446) preserve a relevant detail from the Life of Aesop tradition: it was said that the people of Delphi had resolved to kill Aesop because he insulted them by ridiculing (ἀποσκῶψαι) the fact that they had no land of their own for growing their own produce. Because they had no land for agriculture, according to the scholia here, the people of Delphi had to depend for their sustenance on the meat they obtained from the sacrifices made by visiting sacrificers. This insult, I think, is built into the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch,” where the dog who angrily barks to get meat is like the people of Delphi, who would be well advised to use their barking to get wheat instead of meat.

§16 [via old §105] Some think, however, that this fable “Aesop and the Bitch” is not a genuine Aesopic fable, understanding it instead as an ad hoc invention by Aristophanes (MacDowell 1971:312; Sommerstein 1983:240; taking a neutral stance is the commentary of Biles and Olson 2015 on Wasps 1401–1405). One reason given for such an understanding is that Aesop himself is featured here as a character inside the narrative of the fable (for more, I cite MacDowell 1971:312). But that is not a good reason, I think, for doubting that this fable is genuinely Aesopic. I can cite other examples of Aesopic fables where Aesop himself is featured as a character inside the narrative of the fable, as in the case of “Aesop and the Shipbuilders” (Fable 8 ed. Perry). Another example is “Aesop and the Corinthians” (Fable 424 ed. Perry), where we see two verses of an elegiac couplet being spoken by Aesop himself to the people of Corinth: according to Diogenes Laertius (2.5.42), who is our source here, Socrates himself had composed those verses.

§17 [via old §106] I should add, in arguing that this story of “Aesop and the Bitch” is a genuine Aesopic fable, that there is in the Life of Aesop narratives an attestation of another story about Aesop and a bitch. In this case, the action takes place on the island of Samos, and the dog is described as a purebred female house pet living in the residence of a philosopher named Xanthos, who is at the time the master of the slave Aesop (Vita G+W 44–46). Summoning the bitch by calling out her name, Lukaina ‘She-Wolf’ (Vita G+W 45), Aesop proceeds to feed her a basketful of food that he had been instructed by Xanthos to give as a dinner gift ‘to her who loves me’. By giving the whole dinner to the bitch and not to the wife of Xanthos, Aesop has his revenge on a nasty aristocratic woman who had been tormenting him with her insults. In terms of this fable, then, Aesop has something of a reputation for giving generous handouts to bitches.

§18 [via old §107] Even if the story of “Aesop and the Bitch” as narrated in the Wasps of Aristophanes is a genuine Aesopic fable, as I think it is, this fable is a failure as a fable in the context of this comedy. What makes it a failure is the fact that it is badly applied. But that is actually good for comedy. The bad application is exactly what makes the fable work successfully in the comedy. The fact that the fable is badly applied is what gives the fable a comic twist. The narrator of the fable here has actually botched the application of his narrative to his own circumstances. And that is what makes the fable a failure in this context, since the narration of a fable can succeed only if its narrators are successful in applying it to suit their own intentions. As I have argued at length in an earlier project (Nagy 1979|1999:282§5n4), the moral of a fable must be applicable to the circumstances of the narrator of the fable. That is the synchronic reality of applying fables.

§19 [via old §101] By why does Aesop tell the bitch to bark for wheat and not meat? In terms of the convoluted logic of the narrative, it is because it would not make any sense for the bitch to be barking so furiously at Aesop unless it was wheat that she wanted as payment for putting a stop to her angry barking. I think it is the convolutedness of the logic here that makes the narrative amusing. The premise that is built into the narrative, I further think, is that dogs crave to eat meat, not wheat, and, presumably, there was meat to be eaten at the ‘dinner’ that Aesop had just attended. But the bitch is barking up the wrong tree, as it were, if what she really wants to get from Aesop is a cut of meat as a payoff for stopping her furious barking. Aesop has no meat to give to the bitch. And so the dog deserves to get nothing to eat by barking so angrily. In terms of such a convoluted logic, I think, the moral of the fable would be something like this: you can’t always get what you want, no matter how hard you try.

§20. In Part III, however, we will see that Aesop himself in the Life of Aesop traditions could be pictured—falsely—in the act of carrying off thievishly some cooked meat left over from a feast that he had attended. To put it more accurately, there was a story that told how Aesop was accused, falsely and slanderously, of behaving like a thief in the night. And the accusers were the priests of Delphi. In terms of such a story, as we will also see, the drunkard bitch barking with her evil tongue could be a substitute, as it were, for speaking characters comparable to the slanderous priests of Delphi.

Part III: A dog’s craving for meat as a signal foretelling the death of Aesop

§0. It is a commonplace in storytelling to picture the stealing of meat by a hungry dog, as we see in the illustration for this posting Part III. After all, dogs have a natural craving for meat—also for other rich sources of protein, such as cheese. In Part III here, I pick up from where I left off in Part II, where I was analyzing the fable “Aesop and the Bitch,” printed as Aesop Fable 423 in the edition of Perry (1952)—the story of which is attested only in the Wasps of Aristophanes, lines 1401–1405. In the internal logic of the story, the dog is barking furiously at Aesop because it craves to devour a portion of meat that Aesop is presumably carrying. I say presumably because Aesop has just left an evening feast, and so he must be carrying away with him a “doggie bag.” What I just expressed in colloquial American English does seem apt for describing the presumption—at least, in the inner logic of the story. But Aesop has no meat to give to the hungry dog, and the barking won’t stop. So, what will happen now, if neighbors are roused out of their evening’s repose amidst all this continued barking? Won’t they presume that the dog is barking at a thief in the night? Well, if the setting for this story happens to be Delphi, as I think it is, then Aesop will now be accused of stealing. Then an improvised jury of some kind will swiftly find him guilty. And then, the next thing you know, he will be put to death.

From Michel Brunet, ed., Les fables d’Esope Phrygien: traduites en francois, et accompagnées de maximes morales & politique, pour la conduite de la vie (Paris: 1645), 284.

§1. In the Life of Aesop traditions, there is in fact such a story. It can be pieced together by reading the ancient sources collected as Testimonia 20–32 in the edition of Perry (1952:220–223). I offer here a brief paraphrase based on all these sources. The story tells how Aesop the traveler, when he visited Delphi, was falsely accused and convicted of stealing. The penalty was death, and he was swiftly executed as a lowly thief. What Aesop was falsely accused of stealing, however, was not meat, and I will get to that part of the story in a minute. But first I have to identify the false accusers, since it was they, not Aesop, who were the real thieves in the story. And the irony is, it was these false accusers, not the lowly Aesop, who were really stealing meat. They were the high-and-mighty priests of Delphi, who were greedily enriching themselves day after day by habitually taking for themselves far more than their fair share of the cooked meat that they processed and divided in the course of sacrificing the vast numbers of sheep that visitors coming to Delphi from all over the Greek world would offer, day after day, to be sacrificed for feasting in honor of the god Apollo. The priests were angry at Aesop because his tellings of fables ridiculed their greedy habits, and so they had their revenge by “framing” him, stealthily planting into his travel-bag a golden bowl that had been dedicated as an offering to Apollo in his temple. Thus the high-born stealers of meat could falsely and slanderously accuse the low-born Aesop as a stealer of gold.

§2. The first time I analyzed this story as derived from the Life of Aesop traditions was in the book The Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1979|1999), where I quoted and translated (at 16§7 = pp. 284–285) the following relevant text (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1800 fr. 2 ii 32–63 = Aesop Testimonia 25 ed. Perry):

[ἔστ]ιν δ᾽ αἰτία τοια[ύτη] εἰρ[η]μένη· ἐπὰν [εἰσέ]λθῃ τ[ις] τῷ θεῷ θυσιάσ[ων ο]ἱ Δελφ[ο]ὶ περ[ι]εστήκασι τὸν βωμ[ὸ]ν ὑφ᾽ ἑαυτοῖς μαχαίρας κ[ο]μίζοντες,σφαγιασαμένου δὲ τοῦ ἱερέως καὶ δείραντος τὸ ἱερεῖον καὶ τὰ σπλάγχνα περιεξελομένου, οἱ περιεστῶτες ἕκαστος ἣν ἂν ἰσχύσῃ μοῖραν ἀποτεμνόμενος ἄπεισιν, ὡς πολλάκις τὸν θυσιάσαντα αὐτὸν ἄμοιρ[ο]ν ἀπι[έ]ναι. τοῦτο οὖν Αἴ[σ]ωπ[ο]ς Δελφοὺς ὀνιδ[ί]ζων ἐπέσκωψεν, ἐφ᾽ οἷς διοργισθέντες οἱ πολλοὶ λίθοις αὐτὸν βάλλοντες κατὰ κρημνοῦ ἔωσαν. μετ᾽ οὐ πολὺ δὲ λοιμικὸν πάθος ἐπέσκηψε τῇ πόλει, χρηστηριαζομένοις δ᾽ αὐτοῖς ὁ θεὸς ἀνεῖλεν οὐ πρότερον [λήξ]ειν τήν νόσ[ον μέ]χρις [ἂν Α]ἴσωπον ἐξι[λάσκωντ]αι. οἱ δὲ περιτει[χίσ]αντες τὸν τόπον [ἐν ᾧ κ]ατέπεσεν βωμό[ν θ᾽ ἱ]δ[ρυσά]μενοι λυτήρ[ι]ο[ν] τῆς νόσου, ὡς ἥρῳ θ[υσίας] προ[σ]ήνεγκαν.

The cause [aitiā] is said to be this: When someone goes in for the purpose of initiating sacrifice to the god, the Delphians stand around the altar carrying concealed daggers [mákhairai]. And after the priest has slaughtered and flayed the sacrificial victim and after he has apportioned the innards, those who have been standing around cut off whatever portion [moîra] of meat each of them is able to cut off and then depart, with the result that the one who initiated the sacrifice oftentimes departs without having a portion [moîra] himself. Now Aesop reproached [oneidizein] and ridiculed [skōptein] the Delphians for this, which made the people angry. They stoned him and pushed him off a cliff. Not much later, a pestilence fell upon the city, and when they consulted the Oracle, the god revealed that the disease would not cease until they propitiated Aesop. So they built a wall around the place where he fell, set up an altar as an antidote to the disease, and sacrificed to him as a hero.

In my book (at notes 1–4 of 16§7 = pp. 284–285), I give information about textual corrections as indicated by way of underlines made at four points in the Greek text above, but this information is not pertinent to my analysis here—except for the first underline, which signals the fact that a lacuna in the papyrus has left us with a missing sentence that precedes the Greek text as I quoted it.

§3. In the missing sentence, there must have been a statement about something that is being explained in the sentences that follow. The explanation is termed an aitiā ‘cause’—a word that is regularly used in Greek with reference to a special kind of a myth. Such a myth, known either as aitiā or as aition, both meaning ‘cause’, functions as an aetiology, that is, as a traditional explanation for an institutional reality—for a traditional custom. In most cases, the traditional custom that is being explained by the aetiological myth is a ritual or, more broadly, a ritualized institution.

§4. In the case of the myth that is being retold in this text, it is an aetiology for the ritualized institution of worshipping Aesop as a cult hero in Delphi, as I argued in The Best of the Achaeans (1979|1999 16§§7–9 = pp. 284–286). And then I broadened and deepened the argument further in my essay “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop” (Nagy 2011, especially at §§4–9, 17–19, 28–29, 65–94). For now, however, my focus is not on the hero cult of Aesop as a ritualized institution but rather on the myth that aetiologizes that institution.

§5. The central story of this myth, as we saw at §2 in the text of the papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, was the actual death of Aesop. In the version of the story as I quoted it at §2, he was killed because he made the people of Delphi angry by ridiculing them in a reproachful way. But this telling of the story is incomplete. It does not give details about what it was that Aesop actually said in reproaching and ridiculing the priests of Delphi. Nor does it say how Aesop was framed by the priests. Such missing details in the text at §2 can be found in other texts collected as Testimonia 20–32 in the edition of Perry (1952:220–223), and I have already retold a complete version in a cursory way at §1 above.

§6. Another sign of incompleteness in the Greek text as quoted at §2 is the vagueness of the narrative about the ritual involving the sacrificing of sheep. The story makes it look as if there were only one person performing the actual slaughter—he is the one who is called the hiereus ‘priest’—while the others attending, all brandishing makhairai or sacrificial ‘daggers’, seem to be merely the people of Delphi. What this description elides, however, is that the holders of makhairai at Delphi are already performing a priestly function when they carve the meat of the sheep that have been slaughtered. What causes the vagueness here, I argue, is that the ritual being described—the ritual that Aesop reproached and ridiculed—was a practice that notionally took place in the mythologized past of Delphi, at a time before the so-called First Sacred War (traditionally dated to the early sixth century BCE), which was ostensibly caused by the death of Aesop. I apply here an epitome of a relevant argument I made in the article “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop” (Nagy 2011 §68), with reference to myths about deaths of heroes in general:

Myths about the violent death of a hero can include details about rituals of sacrificial slaughter where the sacrifice went wrong, very wrong. Such a disruption of sacrifice in the distant past, which is the world of myth, can motivate the regulation of sacrifice in the immediate present, which is the world of ritual. Such myths, then, are aetiological, in that they explain and even confirm the stability of a ritual or of some other such institution in the present by narrating a primordial event of instability in the mythical past.

§7. Here is an earlier formulation (Nagy 1990 4§§4, 12–20; 5§§9–10; 13§§11, 33–36 = pp. 118, 125–130; 141–142; 386; 395–397): an aetiology focuses on a foundational catastrophe in the mythologized past that explains and thus motivates continuing success in the ritualized present and future.

§8. In terms of this formulation, the ritual of sacrificing sheep at Delphi in the present has been perfected because Aesop died long ago in the past—back in the days when the prototype of that same ritual was still chaotic.

§9. So, back in the days of Aesop, the priests at Delphi were dysfunctional. And, back then, they were angry at Aesop for ridiculing their dysfunctionality, which they displayed most blatantly in their greed. There they were, wrangling over the best cuts of meat at the feast, while a visitor who initiated a sacrifice of a sheep could be left without a cut even by the time he made his departure from the feast.

§10. Comparably, in the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch” at lines 1401–1405 in the Wasps of Aristophanes, it was Aesop himself who had left the feast without a portion. And then, as he made his departure, he encountered the bitch. There she was, furiously barking at him, craving meat that he did not have. And, like the greedy priests, this bitch had a nasty tongue—which got Aesop in trouble not by speaking but by barking. Meanwhile, the greedy priests got Aesop in trouble by speaking with nasty tongues that slandered our maker of fables.

§11. There is a comparison to be made here with the comic “dog-trial” at lines 891–1008 in the Wasps of Aristophanes. At this canine trial, the defendant is the dog Labēs, whose name means ‘grabber’—and who is accused of thievishly grabbing a portion of cheese. On the other side, the prosecutor is the dog Kyon, whose name means simply ‘dog’, matching in metrical shape the name of Kleon (Cleon) himself. This Kyon is a talking dog, making his accusations with his evil tongue, just like the priests of Delphi who caused the death of Aesop. But this dog Kyon is just as thievish, if not more so, than the other dog who has no speaking role, Labēs the ‘grabber’.

§12. I bring this essay to an end by recalling what I had said earlier at §15 in Part II. There I was highlighting an obvious reason, in the retelling of the fable “Aesop and the Bitch” in the Wasps of Aristophanes, for mentioning wheat at lines 1404–1405, since the bread-seller would need more wheat for making more bread. But then I added that there was also a reason, a far less obvious reason, for mentioning wheat in the story of this fable. I repeat here what is reported in the scholia for the Wasps of Aristophanes (at 1446), drawing on a relevant detail from the Life of Aesop tradition: it is said that the people of Delphi had resolved to kill Aesop because he insulted them by ridiculing (ἀποσκῶψαι) the fact that they had no land of their own for growing their own produce. Because they had no land for agriculture, according to the scholia here, the people of Delphi had to depend for their sustenance on the meat they obtained from the sacrifices made by visiting sacrificers. This insult, as I had proposed already in Part II, is built into the fable of “Aesop and the Bitch,” where the dog who angrily barks to get meat is like the people of Delphi, who would be well advised to use their barking to get wheat instead of meat. And now I would add that such an insult is grounded in the old world of myths about Aesop in Delphi, not in the new world inhabited by characters who come to life in the comedies of Aristophanes.


Biles, Z. P., and D. S. Olson, ed. with commentary, 2015. Aristophanes Wasps. Oxford.

Fögen, Th., and E. Thomas,  eds. 2017. Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Berlin.

González, J. M., ed. 2015. Diachrony: Diachronic Studies of Ancient Greek Literature and Culture. MythosEikonPoiesis 7. Berlin.

Miles, S. 2017. “Cultured animals and wild humans? Talking with the animals in Aristophanes’ Wasps.” Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, ed. Th. Fögen and E. Thomas, 205–232. Berlin. This article contains valuable references to several relevant works that will require further comments from me in future projects.

Nagy, G. 1979|1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Best_of_the_Achaeans.1999.

Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.

Nagy, G. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca NY. Revised paperback edition 1992. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Greek_Mythology_and_Poetics.1990.

Nagy, G. 2011. “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop.” Classics@. Issue 9: Defense Mechanisms in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Studies and Beyond. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Diachrony_and_the_Case_of_Aesop.2011. An abbreviated version was published by González 2015:233–290.

Nagy, G. 2019.05.31. “A comparative approach to beast fables in Greek songmaking, Part 1: A would-be Aesopic werewolf.” https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-comparative-approach-to-beast-fables-in-greek-songmaking-part-1-a-would-be-aesopic-werewolf/.

Nagy, G. 2019.06.07. “A comparative approach to beast fables in Greek songmaking, Part 2: The case of a story about Aesop and a barking dog in the Wasps of Aristophanes.” https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-comparative-approach-to-beast-fables-in-greek-songmaking-part-2-the-case-of-a-story-about-aesop-and-a-barking-dog-in-the-wasps-of-aristophanes/.

Nagy, G. 2019.06.11. “A comparative approach to beast fables in Greek songmaking, Part 3: A dog’s craving for meat as a signal foretelling the death of Aesop.” https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-comparative-approach-to-beast-fables-in-greek-songmaking-part-3-a-dogs-craving-for-meat-as-a-signal-foretelling-the-death-of-aesop/.

Perry, B. E., ed. 1952. Aesopica. Urbana IL.

Sommerstein, A. H., ed, with commentary and translation, 1983. Aristophanes Wasps. Warminster.


[1] The codex has ἀπελθὼν.

[2] The codex has ἐχασμίσατο.

[3] The codex has χασμῖσθαι. I prefer χασμῆσθαι to Perry’s reading χασμεῖσθαι, since the “itacism” of the scribe extends to η, not only to ει.

[4] The codex has χασμῖσθαι. I prefer χασμῆσθαι to Perry’s reading χασμεῖσθαι.

[5] The codex has χασμιθῶ.

[6] The codex has ἐχασμίσατο. I prefer χασμῆσθαι to Perry’s reading χασμεῖσθαι.

[7] The codex has χασμῖσθαι.

[8] The codex has δρομέως.


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