DECEMBER
2000

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

12-28-00

Insects in the Fables of Aesop

Some 2,550 years ago in ancient Greece lived a fellow who was quite the storyteller. At least you would guess that Aesop probably wove a decent yarn.

His tales were good enough to have survived to this day and are often repeated. Indeed, there are few people who are not familiar with Aesop's Fables. The Fables of Aesop involve animals of all sorts. These creatures talk and act like humans, especially when it comes to doing really dumb things. And that is where the moral comes in!

Occasionally, insects creep into Aesop's Fables. The best known of these involves a grasshopper and an ant. You know the story. The grasshopper sang all summer while the ant worked hard putting up food for the winter. When winter came, the cold and hungry grasshopper showed up on the ant's doorstep begging for a handout. Of course, the ant said get lost. And Aesop's point was? Plan ahead or you've got to work for what you get.

Some people believe that it wasn't a grasshopper in the original fable. You see, grasshoppers are not the best known singers of the insect world. A better known singer, certainly in ancient Greece, was the cicada. So speculation is that it was the cicada, not the grasshopper, that according to Aesop was begging from the ant.

Ants are the most common insect in Aesop's Fables. There is “The Dove and the Ant,” where the dove saves the ant from drowning in a stream. Later, the ant stings a hunter attempting to shoot the dove. The moral is “Little friends may prove great friends.” Or in another version, “One good turn deserves another.”

The ant shows up in another fable—this time as the bad guy! In “The Ant and the Chrysalis,” the ant pities the poor chrysalis that is only able to wiggle its tail. The ant, on the other hand, can crawl up on the tallest objects. So the chrysalis turns into a butterfly and flies away, telling the ant to look at his most-pitied friend. Moral: “Appearances are deceptive.”

In the fable of “The Bald Man and the Fly,” a fly bit the bare head of the bald man who attempted to kill the fly with a slap. Of course, the bald-headed man missed and slapped his head in the process. The fly mocked the man, saying something like, “Look, you have hurt yourself trying to do me harm!” To which the man replies that he his willing to endure some pain in order to inflict even heavier damage on the fly. The lesson to be learned is that revenge will hurt the avenger.

Another fable attributed to Aesop is called “The Bee and Jupiter.” In this fable, a queen from the hive ascended to Olympus to present Jupiter some fresh honey from her combs. Jupiter promised to give her what she wished for in return, and she asked for a sting to kill mortals who threatened her hive. This bothered Jupiter, but he granted the wish with the stipulation that the bee would die if she stung because the stinger would remain in the wound of the victim. The moral of the story is that “Evil wishes, like chickens, come home to roost!” In other words, when you do bad things there is always a penalty to pay.

Of course, bee experts will point out that queen honey bees do not die when they sting, but workers do. But let's not be too critical of old Aesop; at least he knew that some bees lose their stingers when they sting!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox