The Timeless Comedy of Human Nature
The ancient Greek storyteller Aesop is well known for tales such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” First told more than 2,500 years ago, these tales and their ageless wisdom are still passed down from generation to generation.
Yet some of Aesop’s lesser-known fables seem equally timeless to me — and funny for good measure. They might not offer quite such a clear-cut moral lesson as a tale like “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” but their observations about human vanity and human gullibility can’t be beat. And all of them are available for free.
Here is a dozen of the best.
The Gnat and the Bull
Image courtesy of Gerry Dincher.
A gnat sits on a bull’s horn for a long time. Eventually, he asks the bull whether he’d like him to leave. The bull says he even never knew the gnat was there in the first place and won’t miss him when he’s gone. It’s a great lesson about exaggerating one’s own importance.
The Mischievous Dog
Image courtesy of Jelly Dude.
When a dog repeatedly sneaks up on people to bite them, his master puts a bell around his neck. The dog prances proudly about the marketplace, mistaking the bell for a mark of distinction rather than a mark of disgrace.
The Milk-Woman and Her Pail
Image courtesy of Dallas.
In this quintessential don’t-count-your-chickens-before-they-hatch tale, a woman spills her pail of milk while imagining how fabulous she’s going to look in the gown she’ll buy after selling her chickens, which will hatch from the eggs she plans to buy with the proceeds from selling the milk. Which is now spilled all over the ground. You get the idea.
The Boasting Traveler
Image courtesy of Roberto Ventre.
A man boasts of the feats he’s accomplished in distant lands. In particular, he claims to have leapt an extraordinary distance in Rhodes, and he says that he could call many witnesses to verify his story. A bystander explains that there is no need for witnesses, telling the boaster, “Suppose this to be Rhodes, and leap for us.”
The Hunter and the Woodman
Image courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar.
In this funny commentary on bravery, a hunter makes a big show of tracking a lion. When a woodman offers to show the hunter not just the lion’s tracks but the lion himself, the hunter trembles with fear and clarifies that he was searching only for the tracks.
Image courtesy of Josh McGinn.
A fortune teller’s house gets robbed while he’s away in the marketplace. Bystanders are amused that he couldn’t see it coming.
The Buffoon and the Countryman
Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A clown at a talent show delights the audience by making squealing noises and pretending to have a pig concealed under his cloak. The next night, a countryman conceals an actual pig under his cloak and squeezes its ear so that it squeals. In this ancient precursor to American Idol, the audience declares that the clown’s pig imitation is much more accurate than the countryman’s.
The Cobbler Turned Doctor
Image courtesy of Garrett Coakley.
A cobbler who can’t earn a living fixing shoes moves to a new town and begins selling what he claims is an antidote to all poisons. Through relentless self-promotion, he becomes a success. But when he himself falls ill, the governor of the town offers him a big reward if he’ll drink a mixture of poison and his antidote. Fearing the effects of the poison, the cobbler confesses he’s a fake.
Like “The Buffoon and the Countryman,” this is a fable about the poor judgment of crowds. In the end, the governor chastises the townspeople, “You have not hesitated to entrust your heads to a man, whom no one could employ to make even the shoes for their feet.”
The Man and His Two Sweethearts
Image courtesy of iamtheo.
A man is courting two women, one considerably younger than he is and the other considerably older. Every time he visits the younger woman, she surreptitiously plucks his gray hairs so he’ll look closer to her age. Every time he visits the older woman, she surreptitiously plucks his dark hairs so he’ll look closer to her age. You’ve probably already guessed he ends up bald.
The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass
Image courtesy of Aurelien Guichard.
In this story, a miller and his son try to please everyone, and in doing so, they lose both their dignity and their donkey.
The Lion and the Statue
Image courtesy of David Huang.
A lion and a man are arguing over which is stronger: lions or men. By way of proof, the man shows the lion a statue of Hercules triumphing over a lion. But the lion is not convinced, noting that “it was a man who made the statue.”
Belling the Cat
Image courtesy of Kellie Goddard.
If you’ve ever had co-workers (and who hasn’t?), this story is for you.
The mice hold a meeting to determine what to do about their enemy, the cat. A young mouse notes that they would all be safer if they could receive warning of the cat’s approach, so he suggests that a bell be attached to the cat’s neck. Everyone loves the proposal until a wise old mouse asks, “[B]ut who is to bell the cat?”
Short but Sweet
Some of these stories may be just a few sentences long, but all of them ring true to human nature. They’re centuries old but teach us, yet again, that some things never change.