Tuesday, March 29, 2016

TFBT: Random Notes on Aesop and the Gods

Our next Book Club selection at Hour 25 will be Aesop’s Fables on Tuesday, April 26, at 11 a.m. EDT.  For my initial reading I read the version at Project Gutenberg,  translation by V. S. Vernon Jones.  As I noted elsewhere, “upon the sandy beach of Playa de los Muertos I skipped through delightful anecdotes often of interest to the classicist in me.”  So this will be a re-reading.  Often when I re-read a book I try to shift my perspective by focusing on something besides the main character or story line.  This time I chose the gods.  G. K. Chesterton in his introduction points out that “…for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess…”  That said I can’t expect to hear much about the gods as we normally hear about them.  But a close reading might tell us what Aesop thought about the gods.   

In “The Man who Lost his Spade” Aesop’s character, “had no great opinion of the simple country deities” and deemed the gods of the town (Panhellenic?) no shrewder.  On the other hand “The Rogue and the Oracle” makes the gods appear all knowing and shrewd. So I don’t know what Aesop thought of the gods! 

In “The Frogs’ complaint against the Sun”, the Aesop worries about the seemingly endless proliferation of deities, particularly those in the shining lineage of Hyperion.  Admittedly the Theban and Trojan Wars were designed to relieve the earth from the burden of the tribes of men, particularly demi-gods.  And Zeus did pull the veil between gods and men after the war to stop the fraternization of Olympic gods with earthly women and the creation of more demi-gods.  Still that gives us no indication that the divine population would not continue to grow.   That said I think the frogs are safe for three reasons. 
1.    The tradition of female virginity about the Olympians.
2.    The dwindling of powerful divinity among the divine blood lines.  Hades and Persephone are generally consider childless.  Poseidon and Amphitrite produced only minor deities and their greatest child couldn’t even walk.  Zeus and Hera, the power couple of the universe produced only three or four children of no great consequence;
a.     Hebe wed Heracles and they produced two minor daemons.
b.    Ares bedded the mighty Aphrodite and produced only minor daemons and mortal girls.
c.     Hephaestus wed Aphrodite, they produced no children.  
d.    And Eileithyia is another virgin. 
3.    The Hyperion goddesses Selene and Eos were cursed with an obsession with mortal men and their brother for all his bedding of Oceanids sired no sons of significance either. 

In “Mercury and the Woodman” Hermes reprises his role as the luck-bringer (Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes).  In “Mercury and the Tradesmen” Hermes plays a promethean trickster god very much in character that we know. (Hesiod Works & Days 67-68)  Ironically the story damns tradesmen whose god Hermes is.  As Suda says "They say Hermes was responsible for profit and an overseer of the businesses”   .  In “Prometheus and the Making of Man” we see a bit of the trickster in Prometheus and a damnation of much of humanity.  In other books, like  Protagoras” 320c - 322a by Plato, we see Epimetheus messing up the creation of man by giving too abundantly the gifts of claw and fang to the animals and leaving nothing for man.  

Mercury and the Man Bitten by an Ant” suggests that as men are to a hill of ants, so gods are to men.  Here Hermes betrays a sensitivity not at all in keeping with his character or the nature of the gods.

The story of “The Bee and Jupiter” is the story of the Rash Oath.  Zeus “promised to give her anything she liked to ask for”, same mistake that Helios made with his son Phaethon. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 750) and Herod with Herodias (Mark 6:23) In “Jupiter and the Tortoise” it is the tortoise that makes the rash oath.

 In “Jupiter and the Monkey” we see a scenario not comparable to anything in Greek literature; a character who values love over unwilting glory.   

The Snake and Jupiter” offers a scenario very untypical of snakes and very untypical of Zeus’ relationship with snakes.  In “The Peacock and Juno” Hera,  the representative-in-residence of the more conservative faction among the Olympians, responds with a quick retort to the whining peacock as Zeus did to the whining snake.  Ironically the peacock is usually portrayed as Hera’s favorite. (Fulgeneus Mythologi trans. by L.G.WhitBread Book 2.1-Juno) 

In both “The Farmer and Fortune”, “Hercules and the Waggoner” and “The Traveler and Fortune” we see men blaming the gods for their own condition.   
"Ah how shameless--the way these mortals blame the gods.From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share."

In “Hercules and Minerva” we see Heracles exercising brawn instead of brains on the apple of discord and in “Hercules and Plutus” we see the typical heroic distaste for Wealth, saying that Plutus was always to be “found in the company of scoundrels."  And both stories remind me of the parable about Heracles’ path in life, “path of virtue or the path of vice” and the goddesses of each vying for his attention (Prodicus by way of Xenophon.)

In “Venus and the Cat” Aphrodite in disgust turns the girl back into a cat.  In Greek mythology such things can be rarely undone.

In summary, as we should have expected from Chesterton, we did not see Aesop’s version of the gods, but impersonal abstractions.  What we did see is motif’s common to Greek myths and some uncommon motifs I shall explore further.


  1. Interesting!
    I hadn't mentioned that Eilethyia is a virgin like Artemis. To me, a virgin goddess of birth is the definition of irony. Lucian once jokes that Artemis with her expertise is apparently not as chaste as she claims.

    The fear of the Sun procreating was described also in a Bulgarian tale that I mentioned earlier (but the animal hero was a hedgehog, not frogs).

    My gods once admit that humans are more loving creatures (some gods, like Zeus, cannot love at all, but even those who can are not as goods as humans). Presumably humans have inherited this from their monkey predecessors. I am glad that Aesop's fable about the monkey supports my idea.

    “Prometheus and the Making of Man” reminds me of Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau".

  2. Maya,

    You know Artemis was midwife at her twin brothers birth? Girls mature si much faster than boys! Ha a


  3. Yes, the Greeks felt a need to spin some story to explain her ability :-). However, she was initially not Apollo's sister. He is an immigrant from Anatolia/Middle East, and she is older. Her name - but not his - is on Mycenaean tablets.

  4. I thought Leto and her children were Anatolian? Which I find ironic, Apollo; the symbol of Greek culture is a barbarian-god, who always sides with the barbarians like the Trojans and Persians.


    1. Indeed, I checked and saw that some scholars identify Leto with a Lycian mother goddess. The following inscription was found:

      "This decree (here) inscribed is (the one which conveys title of) the property. Further, if anyone ever takes (something) from Kandawas the God or the existing priest, (may that person) be removed by Kandawas the God and by his Companion! And, by the God, Lato, Artemis, Hshatrapati and the other (gods), (may) that person be removed! And may those gods exact (expiation) from him!
      (Aramaic summary of Lycian/Greek civic decree, Xanthos)"

    2. "Shatrapati" means "Lord of the roof" in Sanskrit and has been used in much later times as a title of (mortal) Indian rulers.

  5. Maybe Achilles realizes after Patroclus' death that love is more important than glory.

  6. Maya,
    I noticed how good you did on the weekly quiz at Hour Twenty Five. Do you avidly read everything? Are you really smart? Study hard? All three? Good job!


    1. Thank you very much! I do not feel too smart. I read regularly, and your quizzes guide the student, aiming not as much to evaluate his knowledge as to increase it. I may use the same approach some day. So far, I have composed only nasty quizzes full of traps for the poor students.

    2. Maya,

      Ironically, when I made the quizzes harder, people at Hour 25 did better! No kidding! Maybe part of making them garder was being more serious. Now I use actual text from the vorums and quoted material