Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Rumi: The Fable of the Lion’s Share

Posted by Laura Gibbs • Oct 1st, 2008

Aesop’s fables are generally considered to be children’s stories these days. Yet this is a quite modern phenomenon. For most of the past three thousand years, Aesop’s fables were not considered to be children’s literature, but were instead regarded as wisdom literature. In this article, I will present an example of the use of Aesop’s fables in the wisdom literature of Islam, specifically in the great thirteenth-century Persian poet, Rumi, one of the greatest exponents of Sufi thought in the Muslim tradition.

By the time Rumi was composing his massive poem, the Mathnawi, Aesop’s fables had already been circulating throughout the Mediterranean world for two thousand years. The fables were not seen as distinctively Greek, but had been adopted wholeheartedly by Arabic and Persian storytellers, such as Rumi. Like other Sufi teachers, Rumi made use of these secular stories side by side with religious parables and legends in order to reveal esoteric doctrines to his followers.

To give you an example of how Rumi appropriates an Aesop’s fable for mystical religious teaching, let us take Rumi’s version of the famous fable of the “lion’s share.” First, let’s start with a traditional Greek version of the fable, which features a lion who goes hunting with a donkey and a fox:

A lion and a donkey and a fox joined as partners, promising to go hunting together. They made a big catch, and the lion ordered the donkey to divide it among them. Making three equal portions, the donkey asked him to choose, but the lion was infuriated, feasted upon the donkey and then ordered the fox to make the division. The fox put everything into one pile, leaving just a tiny bit for herself, and told the lion to choose. When the lion asked her how she learned to apportion things in this way, the fox replied: “From the donkey’s misfortune.” (Chambry #209)

This Greek story is a typical Aesop’s fable: witty, vicious, and wise. It certainly does not seem to contain profound revelations about the right relations of God and man, but this is precisely what Rumi discovers in the story. As soon as Rumi identifies the lion not with secular authority but with absolute divine authority, the way to a mystical understanding of the fable becomes clear.

Here is how Rumi begins his version: “Melt away your existence, as copper in the elixir, in the being of Him who fosters existence. You have fastened both your hands tight on ‘I’ and ‘we’: all this ruin is caused by dualism.” In the Aesopic tradition, you often find a moralizing preface to the telling of a fable, so it is not unusual to find a moral stated at the beginning of a fable like this. What is unusual is the profoundly religious theme that Rumi wants to illustrate with this fable: somehow the story of the lion and his hunting companions is going to turn into a lesson about the annihilation of dualism and unity with God.

Just as in Aesop, the three animals — in Rumi’s version, a lion, a wolf, and a fox — go hunting together, and when it is time to divide the spoils, the wolf and the fox foolishly expect that the lion will share with them, not realizing just whom they are dealing with. There they are, in the presence of God, and they do not even recognize him. The lion, in fact, finds it a bit embarrassing to consort with these limited beings: “A moon like this is disgraced by the stars: it is amongst the stars for generosity’s sake,” as Rumi explains. “The spirit has now become the body’s fellow-traveller.” For Rumi, the animals’ hunting expedition is a metaphor for the human condition itself, in which the spirit (the lion) is shackled to the body, trapped in this corporeal partnership.

The lion then orders the wolf to divide the spoils. The wolf divides the spoils into three parts, one for each of the partners in the hunt. Outraged, the lion tears off the wolf’s head, just as the lion tore the donkey to pieces in the Aesop’s fable. Yet, unlike the lion in Aesop who simply munches on the donkey in silence, the lion offers an explanation of his actions: “Since the sight of me did not transport thee out of thyself, a spirit like this must needs die miserably.” To die thus at the claws of the lion is actually a blessing for the wolf: “Since thou wert not passing away from thyself in my presence, ’twas an act of grace to behead thee.”

Then, just as in the Aesop’s fable, the lion turns to the fox and orders him to divide up the spoil. The fox does not save even a morsel for himself in this version of the story; he gives everything to the lion. Again as in Aesop, the lion asks the fox where he learned to divide the spoils in this way, and the fox replies: “O king of the world, I learned it from the fate of the wolf.”

But this is not the end of the story. In Rumi’s version, the lion then gives the whole of the spoils to the fox, and  speaks these words of blessing: “Inasmuch as thou hast become pledge to love of me, pick up all of it and take it and depart. O fox, since thou hast become entirely mine, how should I hurt thee when thou hast become myself?” The fox then thanks the lion for giving him the privilege of having gone second, after the wolf; otherwise, he would surely have met the same fate as the wolf. This allows Rumi to conclude that we are lucky to be living now, with the examples of past generations to guide us: “So that we have heard of the chastisements which God inflicted upon the past generations in the preceding time, that we, like the fox may keep better watch over ourselves from considering the fate of those ancient wolves.”

Rumi has thus taken a traditional Aesop’s fable and turned it into a meditation on oneness with God and obedience to divine authority. This approach exemplifies what Randy has called the “religious theme” in myths and legends about the confrontation between the human and the divine.  Rumi’s fox worships at the feet of the lion, addressing him with the words “O king of the world,” and is duly rewarded for this devotion. In Aesop, on the other hand, there is a much more strongly humanistic theme: after seeing what happened to the would-be rebel who defied the lion, the fox concedes the lion’s share, but the words she speaks are not words of worship. Instead, the fox uses her wit to provide a sly critique of the lion, even if she cannot challenge his authority directly. If you were to use just one word to characterize the attitude of Aesop’s fox, it would have to be “cynical.” In my next article, I’ll consider the archetypal Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, and the famous legend of “Diogenes and his lamp.” This, too, is a story that shows up both in Aesop’s fables and in the mystical poetry of Rumi, providing us with another opportunity to consider the shifting fortunes of the religious and humanistic themes in the Greek and Muslim traditions.


References

  • Chambry, Emile (editor). Fables / Esope. 1926. (The full Greek text of this fable is available online, along with an English version, at Aesopica.net.)
  • Nicholson, Reynold A. (editor and translator). The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. 1926 (reprinted 1990); The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi: Commentary. 1937 (reprinted 1985). The fable of the lion is found in Book I, beginning at line 3009.

14 Responses »

  1. That was a great post. It’s the first time that I’ve visited this blog and have come to know about your online resources. I am sure you will post the Aesop fable about the frog who befriended a mouse and tied themseves to each other with a string causing both of them to perish at the hands of a raven.Rumi goes on to point out that the frog is the soul and the mouse the body.Please do post more of the Aesop Rumi connection. I am here to stay.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Binjalil! Rumi’s version of the story of the frog and the mouse literally changed my life. A friend of mine, way back in 1990, had recommended to me that I read Rumi, and I had never heard of him before. Well, I started reading – and there was the fable of the frog and the mouse! It was the first of the Aesop’s fables I found in Rumi, and I was ASTOUNDED by this! I knew the fable from Aesop, but simply could not understand what a fable from Aesop was doing here in a medieval Sufi poet. Plus, it was such a beautiful version of the fable. So, that started me down the entire academic path I have followed in the past twenty years, just looking for the answer to that question: how did Aesop’s fables end up being part of the Islamic tradition? That question has led me to learn so much about Aesop and about wisdom literature in general – meanwhile, Rumi remains my favorite of all the writers I have met on this journey. I will see if Randy would be interested in a piece on that story about the frog and the mouse because it does have a very interesting history in the Western tradition too, where the Aesop’s fable about the frog and the mouse gets connected to the mock-epic poem (once attributed to Homer) called the “Batrachomyomachia,” “The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice.” Anyway, thanks so much for your comment, and I hope you will find some good materials to read here in the future. Next month I have another little article about Rumi again. :-)

  3. Hello again Dr.Gibbs,

    You had wondered “how did Aesop’s fables end up being part of the Islamic tradition? ” Well it’s probably like this.

    The oldest Arab traditions -much before the advent of Islam -mentions a Sage named LUQMAN. Known to the Pre Islamic Arabs as Luqman Al Hakim (Luqman the wise ), stories of his wisdom had been in circulation for centuries before the Koran. In fact language historians now beleive that the earliest Arabic literature was based on stories of Luqman. Perhaps it may not be wrong to state that he kick-started Arabic Literature.!! Now, Luqman the Wise was a slave, later freed by his master who was impressed by his sagacity and wisdom. Compare that with Aesop who too is believed to have been a freed slave albeit a brilliant one.( In fact the name Aesop is presumed to be derived from “Ethiopian” a generic term for black slave.) Putting two and two together you come to the inclusion that Luqman of the Arabs and Aesop of the West were probably one and the same. Many modern Exegets hold this view. The Koran does mention him by name, in fact there is a chapter titled Luqman. Rumi does mention Luqman a couple of times in his Masnavi and asks us to be wise like him! So you see Aesop had a universal appeal much before the advent of The Internet or even the Printing Press :) I look forward to more of yours on Rumi. Best wishes

  4. Yes indeed! The fables of Luqman are a wonderful topic! One of the most interesting things about the Aesopic tradition in Europe is that it is not limited to the old Greek and Roman stories attributed to Aesop. During the Middle Ages, Arabic texts were translated into Latin and into the vernacular languages, so stories that were circulating in Arabic (the fables of Luqman, stories from Kalila wa Dimna and related traditions) merged in with the Aesopic fables. One of my projects this summer was looking at the medieval Latin translations of the Arabic story traditions – thanks to GoogleBooks, those Latin texts are available online now! So exciting! I don’t know if/when/how I will ever find time for it all, but I would love to make a Latin reader for Latin students based on those wonderful stories that entered into the Latin tradition from Arabic sources. One of my favorites is this version, called the Liber Kalilae et Dimnae: aesopus.pbwiki.com/kalila (I am not sure if the links will work here in the comments; fingers crossed!)

  5. Luqman an african was blessed by God with wisdom. Then was a slave but God never abandons the belivers. His master loved him as he was wise rememder the heart and the tongue. All relavent stories or fables derive from Luqman how glorious is Allah. A black slave who was raised from the lowest and placed on a high pedstal indeed such is the way of our Lord the wisest ofthe wise. Black youth need the history of Luqman to disspell the myth that he is his lineage are in anyway inferior even so Allah mentions him in the final testament to man kind the the book of all books the Quran

  6. Thank you for your comment, Demetrius! There are lots of parallels between Luqman and Aesop, slaves who were very wise storytellers – although Aesop was not adopted by a religious tradition the way that Luqman was adopted and embraced by the Islamic tradition. There are even some incidents shared between the legendary lives of Luqman and Aesop so that sometimes it almost seems like they are the same person. For example, Luqman gets the gift of insight and understanding from an angel of Allah, but in the Life of Aesop, Aesop gets his gift of wisdom from the goddess Isis. Still, the stories are very similar!

  7. A wonderful story fables are.

  8. I am sure you will post the Aesop fable about the frog who befriended a mouse and tied themseves to each other with a string causing both of them to perish at the hands of a raven.Rumi goes on to point out that the frog is the soul and the mouse the body.

  9. Love this post and the advaita message in Rumi’s version of this story

  10. Thank you for your comment, Herry! I have just published a book of 1001 Latin fables which includes many of the fables that reached Europe via Eastern sources, via India and the Middle East – I don’t know if you do any Latin, but the book is available for free download here: Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Now I need to get to work on the English version of the book! The back-and-forth between Eastern and Western storytelling is one of my favorite subjects, and the Aesop’s fable tradition is great way to see that dynamic in action!

  11. what is the translation for the Ahmad Hilmi lion at the top of this website

  12. Hello Fayaz! I wish that I knew; the same calligraphy also appears on the cover Coleman Barks’ Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion: Poetry and Teaching Stories of Rumi, which is where I first became acquainted with the image, but there is not a transcription or a translation of the contents of the calligraphy there. If you find the answer to this, please let me know too! Because of the Coleman Barks’ book, the image has become very well-known and I think it would be great to know the calligraphy. I have asked my friends who speak Arabic but the art of the calligraphy is so ornate that they were not able to help me!

  13. Wow! I rarely read long blogs all the way through but this was incredible! I thoroughly enjoyed your explanations and comparison…i love learning new things and this was delightfully informative! =) Thank you for sharing.

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